The tower of flames leaped high into the night, pouring itself onto the vast darkness above, blotting out the stars with its scarlet glow. Quentin and Toli, tethered to the wagon’s wheels, could feel the heat of the enormous bonfire on their faces, though they were well removed from the blaze. As the flames soared skyward, the wild revel rose on its own wicked wings, taking the form of a thing fevered and inflamed.
The tumult had grown steadily through the evening hours, and now the surrounding woods echoed with the crazed ravings of the celebrants. The raging mass seethed about the fire in gyrations of ever-increasing frenzy. To Quentin and Toli, looking on in mute wonder, it seemed as if something had taken control of their spirits and played them as a maddened minstrel striking his instrument in tortured ecstasy.
Quentin saw, in the glare thrown out by the fire, something moving in the darkness beyond the perimeter. Through the shimmering sheets of heat loosed by the fire, he could see it lumbering slowly, like a colossal beast, a dark shape that seemed to form itself out of the darkness surrounding it.
“Look yonder—there across the way,” he whispered to Toli. Quentin did not know why he had bothered to whisper—their guards were not even making a show of watching them. They had given themselves over to the festivities of their comrades, though they still sat at their posts, longing to join in the turmoil.
“What is it? I cannot make it out.”
“Wait, it is coming closer.” No sooner had Quentin finished speaking than the creature emerged from its dark captivity into the roiling circle of light. It loomed large in the dancing light, the glow of flames glittering on its hideous black skin. It was a creature of terrible beauty, awful and tremendous; it looked a very denizen of Heoth’s forsaken underworld, a thing distilled out of a thousand nightmares. And it came lurching out of the forest into the midst of the celebrants, as if it had been called up from the depths of its underworld home to reign as lord over the foul Hegnrutha.
At first Quentin believed it to be alive, but as the thing moved closer, he saw that it was in fact pulled along with ropes by a hundred or so of its keepers, who clustered about its feet. At last they brought it to the fire’s brink, where it stood with hands outstretched in a perpetual blessing or curse.
It was a statue—an immense carven image of a beast with the legs and torso of a man, the head of a lion, and the maw of a jackal. Two great, curving horns swept out from either side of its head, and its mouth was open in a snarl of rage.
“It is their idol,” said Toli, his eyes filled with the sight before him. He fairly shouted, for at the sight of the towering idol, the frenzied scene below had erupted in a climax of pandemonium. Their two guards jumped up and began dancing where they stood, waving their arms and screaming with enravished abandon.
Now more wood was being thrown around the base of the statue, and it was being introduced into the flames. As Quentin and Toli watched the flames encircle the monstrous idol, a shadow detached itself from among the myriad flickering projections and crept toward them along the perimeter. In a moment, without sensing anyone was there at all, Quentin heard a rasping whisper in his ear.
“I am going to cut your hands free. Do not move.”
Quentin did as instructed and felt his bonds fall away. His right arm swung limply down; he gathered it up with his left hand and held it close to his chest. Without waiting for further instruction, he rolled to cover beneath the wagon.
The three met, heads together, under the shelter of the wagon box. Toli rubbed his wrists and asked, “Why are you doing this?”
There was a brief flash of white in the darkness as the warlord’s emissary smiled. “They are my captors, too. I have long planned to escape, but if I am to survive, I will need the help of those who know this country.” He looked at both of them, his eyes glinting in the firelight. “Time is short. We must go.”
Away from the wagons, there was little chance of discovery. There were no sentries on this night, but there were several smaller groups of revelers gathered around smaller fires at the edges of the camp, and others could be heard crashing through the woods in hysterical rapture. Their screams tore through the night, leaving little doubt in Quentin’s mind of the reality of the animal spirits to which this night was devoted.
The three crouching figures worked their way around the rim of the camp, darting furtively through the mingling expanses of light and darkness. In the trees around them, the huge, elongated shadows cavorted in grotesque mummery as the savage rites progressed unabated.
It was slow work threading through the circle’s outer ring, but at last they managed to reach the shelter of the wood, where the shadows gathered over them like a cloak. “I have hidden our horses just there.” The seneschal nodded into the darkness beyond. “I was able to retrieve your steed,” he said, looking at Quentin, “but your friend’s could not be found.”
Toli grinned and replied, “It was not my horse—I took it from among the others at tether.”
Even in the dark Quentin could see their guide’s eyebrows arch upward in surprise and his eyes shine in amused disbelief. “Then I was right about you two after all. You are not without considerable resources yourselves. I have chosen my partners well.”
The air seemed cooler in the woods, and they moved with increased confidence, though the dell rang on every hand with the howls and shrieks of the celebrants of Hegnrutha. The familiar woodland seemed now a desolate place given to the homeless shades who wandered the nightlands.
Quentin shivered inwardly and fought to keep pace with the others. By the time they reached the horses, waiting patiently in a small gorse-covered draw, Quentin was panting and weak. The small strength he had rationed through the day was nearly exhausted.
“I know a way out of this wood, if you will follow me,” said the emissary. “Then it is I who will follow you.”
“Very well,” said Toli. “Lead on.”
The two mounted quickly and wheeled their horses to the north and away from the camp behind them. Toli cast a quick look over his shoulder and saw Quentin hanging from the saddle with one hand, too weak to climb onto his horse.
“Wait!” shouted Toli, slipping from his mount. “Oh, Kenta, I am sorry. . . . I should have realized . . .”
“No—I will be all right. Just help me into the saddle.”
In the moonlight softly filling the draw, Toli saw the film of sweat glistening on Quentin’s brow. “Ride with me; I can take us both.”
“Once we are away from here, I will be all right,” insisted Quentin. “Hurry, now. Help me into the saddle. There is no time to argue.”
Toli caught Quentin’s foot and hoisted him onto the mount. He could see that Quentin’s right arm dangled uselessly from his shoulder. Quentin grabbed the reins with his left hand and drew his right across his lap to tuck it beneath his cloak.
“Let us away,” he said hoarsely.
Toli sprang to his mount, and they were off, the horses clipping over the furze and heading into the wood. Blazer seemed none the worse for his adventure, thought Quentin, relieved to be in his own saddle again. At least with Blazer he did not need two hands to ride—the horse would anticipate the commands of his master. Quentin had only to hang on; that was something he desperately hoped he would be able to do.
In a moment they were in the deep wood where the thick columns of trees broke the silver moonlight and scattered it in slivers all around them. Behind them, like the voices heard in dreams, the cries of the revelers wailed on, diminishing rapidly as distance and the thick growth of the wood cut them off. It is a dream, Quentin imagined, as he chased the elusive shapes before him, flitting in and out of shadow and light—an awful dream that will be forgotten upon waking. But the sting of the occasional whopping branch and the bracing freshness of the night air on his face were only too real. He knew this was one dream that could not be shaken off in daylight. The nightmare was real, and it had come in force to Mensandor.