Durwin remained long enough with the guests to ease their fears over the king’s odd behavior. He had walked about and greeted all, as if he were the king himself, and his presence seemed to calm any feeling of disquiet created by the king’s speech. The music trilled and eddied, a rippling river to carry away concerns of the moment.
The minstrel master called a cotillion, and the couples began choosing the leaders from among the best dancers present. Durwin chose this time to sneak quietly away, as neither Eskevar nor Alinea had returned. He was vaguely worried that something more serious might have transpired.
He hurried up the stone steps and fled into the castle’s gallery entrance; the wide wooden doors were thrown open, and rows of bright torches illuminated the corridor. A few curious guests strolled the gallery to marvel at the interior of Castle Askelon. Without appearing in haste, Durwin nevertheless hurried along to the king’s apartment. He had little doubt he would find Eskevar there.
Oswald was at the door when Durwin came bustling along. “Oswald, is all well?”
Oswald ducked his head in a shallow bow and said, “Aye, m’lord. The king is inside and the queen with him. He has a messenger.”
Durwin’s eyebrows arched. “Who?”
“I do not know. I did not see him arrive. The warder brought him here at once.”
“Very well. Let us see, then, what is afoot.”
Oswald opened the door and went in. As Durwin made to follow the old chamberlain, he felt a light touch on his arm.
“Bria, I thought you were in the garden.”
“I followed you.” Her smooth brow furrowed with worry. “What is it?”
“A messenger has come; that is all. Wait here but a little, and I will come and tell you all I can.”
“No, I would go with you.” So saying, she stepped through the doorway and pulled Durwin with her.
“Ah, Durwin! I was about to send for you.” Eskevar sat in a great carved chair; Alinea stood beside him with her hand on his shoulder. Both were looking intently at the knight, bedraggled and exhausted, his clothing and light armor grimed over with the dust of the road. The soldier stood swaying with fatigue before them.
“It is Martran.” Eskevar indicated the man with an open hand. “One of Ronsard’s knights. He was just about to tell us his message.”
The knight bowed and said, his voice rough from the dust he had swallowed, “Lord Ronsard says, ‘We are continuing on our mission and are sorry for the delay in returning to him sooner. We have seen nothing to occasion his concern. We will return to him as soon as we have found what we seek, or have some better report to give him.’”
“Is that all, sir knight? You may speak freely.”
“That is all, Sire. That is my message.”
Eskevar, his eyes displaying concern, stroked his chin with his hand.
“Why did he send you with such a message, brave knight?”
“I believe that he was worried that his long absence would cause you alarm. Theido suggested a message be carried back that they might continue their errand.”
“Why was that? Had you seen nothing to render an account?”
“No, Sire. We saw nothing out of the ordinary. But—” He hesitated, as if unsure of his place to speak further.
“But what, good fellow?” asked Durwin, drawing closer. “Have no fear. There is nothing you can say that will incur your king’s displeasure. Withholding your thoughts, however, could be a mistake. Please speak and allow us to judge.”
“Yes, sir.” The knight bowed to Durwin. “It is this. I sensed that something was bothering my lords. They were looking for something and not finding it. This upset Theido greatly. He pushed a furious pace; he wanted to ride all night on occasion. But Ronsard would not let him. They often had words with one another over it.
“But I saw something that puzzled me on the way back. I think that if Theido had seen it, he would have been even more adamant in his ways.”
“And what did you see?” Eskevar asked softly. His eyes were eagle’s eyes as he watched the messenger.
“One of the villages we had passed through only a day or so before was empty when I rode back through. I thought it strange that I did not see anyone, though I did not stop to look further into the matter.”
“Yes, Sire. It was completely abandoned.”
“Anything else? Anything to indicate why that should be so?”
“Not at all. It seemed as if it had been deserted very quickly, though I could see no cause. But, like I say, I did not stop to wonder at it. I came on.”
“I see. Very well, Martran; you may go to your bed. You have well earned your rest.
“Oswald, take Sir Martran to the kitchen and feed him, and then find him a bed in the castle where he will not be disturbed.” To the knight he added, “Stay close about; I may wish to question you further. Now go and take your ease.”
Oswald led the knight away; the man reeled on his feet. “Just one more thing, sir,” said Durwin as Oswald swung open the door. “You did not say that you met Quentin or Toli on the road. Yet you must have passed them at some point. They left here in search of your party a fortnight ago.”
The knight shook his head. “I passed no one at all. And I thought that strange as well, for until I reached Hinsenby the roads were mine alone.”
“Thank you, Martran. Sleep well.”
Durwin fixed a wondering look on the king. “His tale is odd indeed. I do not know what to make of it.”
“It is as I have said—there are strange happenings in the land. An evil grows, but we do not see it.”
“But what has happened to Quentin?” Bria was suddenly concerned.
“We do not know, my lady,” answered Durwin. “But the land is great. They may have traveled by another route.” His tone was not as reassuring as he would have liked.
“At any rate we will soon know,” Eskevar offered. “I propose to go myself in search of them.” The Dragon King was on his feet, striding forth as if he would leave at once.
“My lord, no!” pleaded Alinea. “You have not yet recovered enough strength to abide the saddle.”
“Go if you would, Sire. It is your pleasure. But in going you risk missing the return of your envoy. And where would you begin searching for them?” Durwin asked.
Eskevar threw a wounded look at the hermit. “What am I to do? I cannot remain here forever, waiting while the enemy grows stronger.”
“No one has seen an enemy,” pointed out the queen.
Eskevar turned on her with a growl. “You think he does not exist? He does!” He thumped his chest. “I can feel him here. He is coming—I can feel it.”
“All the more reason to wait. Gain your strength. The action you seek will come soon enough if you are right.”
King Eskevar fell back into his chair in frustration. His noble countenance seethed with dark despair. He thrust his hands through his hair. “Mensandor cries out for her protector, but he sits abed and quakes with fear. Who will save us from our weakness?”
“Leave him now,” said Alinea, taking Durwin and Bria aside. “I will tend him. This is the duty of a wife and queen.”
“By your leave, my lady. I will withdraw to my chambers. Send for me should you need anything.” Durwin took Bria by the arm and drew her from the room.
“I have never seen him thus,” said Bria, her voice quivering on the edge of tears.
“It is a most difficult time for him, and he is not a man much accustomed to difficulty. But it is well. For I see signs of his former spirit returning. He will be the Dragon King once more.”
The great hand closed over the small white body of the bird. There was a flutter of tiny wings and a surprised chirp as the hand withdrew from the cage. The dove struggled weakly, its head poking through the circle formed by the giant thumb and forefinger. A small red-ringed eye stared in terror at the contorted face of the mighty Nin.
Nin the Immortal felt the swift beating of the tiny heart and the dove’s soft, warm body filling his hand. Then he squeezed. The bird squirmed and cried out. Nin squeezed harder. The yellow beak opened wide; the tiny head rolled to the side. Nin, whose fleets stretched the breadth of Gerfallon, opened his hand slowly. The bundle of feathers shivered and lay still.
With a cry of delight, Nin the Destroyer flung the dead bird across the room, where it landed with a soft plop near the door of his chamber. A flurry of white down floated gently to the floor to settle like snowflakes around the lifeless body.
As Nin sat gazing at his handiwork, a chime sounded in the passageway beyond, followed by the ludicrous sight of Uzla’s head peering around the edge of the door.
“Immortal One, I bring news.” The minister’s eyes strayed to the small, white lump of feathers on the floor beside him.
“Enter and speak,” Nin’s great voice rumbled.
Uzla tiptoed quietly in and prostrated himself before his master.
“Rise. Your god commands you. Speak, Uzla; let your voice utter pleasing words of worship to the Eternal One.”
“Who is like our Nin? How shall I describe his greatness? For it is more brilliant than the shining deeds of men, and his wisdom endures forever.” Uzla lifted his hands to his face as if to shade his eyes from the piercing rays of the sun.
“Your words please me. Tell me, now, what is your news? Has Askelon also been taken? I am becoming impatient with this waiting. Tell me what I wish to hear, Uzla.”
“My news is perhaps better suited to a different time and place, Most Noble Nin. I know not of Askelon, but may it be as you say.”
“What, then? Tell me quickly—I grow tired of your foolishness.”
“The commander of your fleet below Elsendor sends word of victory. The ships of King Troen have been destroyed, and the battle on land is begun.”
The great hairless face split into a wide smile of satisfaction; the flesh of his cheeks rolled away on either side like mountains forming alongside a deep chasm. His dark, baleful eyes shrank away to tiny black pits, and his chin sank into the folds on his neck. “It is well! How many prisoners were sacrificed to me?” The room shook with the ringing joy of the thunderous voice.
Uzla’s look transformed itself momentarily into one of dismay. “I know not, Infinite Majesty. The commander did not say, but we may deduce, I think, that it was a very great number. It is ever thus.”
“True, true. I am pleased. I will have a feast to celebrate!”
“May I dare remind the Supreme Light of the Universe that it is Hegnrutha? There is already a feast tonight; it is being prepared even now.”
“Ahh, yes. How suitable. Go, then, and bring me word when all is ready. And command the slaves to ready my oil bath; I will be anointed before the celebration begins. My subjects will fill their eyes with my splendor tonight. It is my will for them. Hear and obey.”
Uzla fell on his face once more and then backed out of the room. His brittle cadence could be heard moments later calling the slaves together to prepare fragrant oils in which to bathe their sovereign.
Nin raised his round moon of a face and laughed; the deep notes tumbled from his throat to reverberate to the farthest corners of the enormous palace ship. Those who heard it shuddered. Who among them would be asked to provide for the Immortal One’s amusement tonight? Whoever chanced to serve that honor on the night of Hegnrutha likely would not see another morning.