If ears do not deceive, the enemy lies encamped in yonder wood.” Ronsard leaned heavily on the pommel of his saddle, staring down onto the wooded plain below them, black and forbidding in the moonlight.
“I cannot think what else would raise a clamor like that,” replied Theido; he, too, was tired and arched his back to stretch weary muscles. Ronsard’s knights had dismounted and now walked to draw the stiffness from their legs. Only Esme seemed as fresh as when they had begun so early that morning.
“What rites require such observance?” wondered Esme as she listened to the horrific din emanating from the wood. The rattling screams pierced the waning night like the cries of the tortured and dying.
“We can but guess, my lady. But perhaps it is the better for us. We may creep closer while they spend themselves in savage revel.”
“If Quentin and Toli are down there, we will find them,” said Ronsard resolutely. “We may as well make a start.” He tried his sword in its scabbard; the blade slid easily, flashing a glint of silver in the moonlight. He turned to Esme. “My lady, would you care to remain here until we return for you? It would ease my mind.”
“Have no fear for me, brave sir. I will do my part. You might need what little service I can render. My arm is not as strong as yours, but my blade is sharp as a serpent’s tooth and quicker still.”
“As you wish; I shall not discourage you. It does seem most apparent that you can take care of yourself. Follow, then, and do what I direct.” Ronsard flicked the reins and called to his knights, “Be mounted. We will approach the wood single file. Keep blades and shields covered. We will leave our horses in the wood and come to the camp on foot. If all goes well with us, we may escape undetected.”
“Lord Ronsard!” shouted one of the knights. “Someone flees the wood as you speak. See—there. Along the gully beyond those trees.”
“I see it!” replied Theido. “Yes! There are three of them. Do you think . . . ?” He looked at Ronsard hopefully.
“It would do to find out who they are, at least.” He watched the three figures riding away from the wood with some speed; they were pale shapes floating over the gray sea of long grass just above the black line of a dry watercourse some distance away. “I think we may meet them just there.” He pointed with a gloved hand toward a bed where the gully swerved around the base of a hill. “Come, let us see who it is that flees the foul host by night.”
Quentin clung to the saddle by force of will. He felt drained and used up. All strength had been wrung out of him in the escape. Now he let Blazer have his head and concentrated merely on keeping himself upright in the saddle, knowing he could not go on much longer; soon he would have to stop and rest. But he thought if he could last until daylight, they would be far enough away that stopping would not endanger them.
So he clutched at the horn of his saddle and hung on as Blazer jounced and jostled along. To his dazed mind it seemed as if he had entered a dream in which hills and sky and woods became his pursuers, crying after him with shrieks of rage and fury. He fled them through gray mists on a horse that flew like the wind, but could not outpace the pursuit.
In his waking dream he saw an army emerge from the hills above them to come sweeping down upon their flank. The dream-knights came thundering to intercept them; he could see their faces hard in the moonlight, and could feel the hot breath of the horses on his face as they drew nearer as if by magic.
But there was something odd about the dream; he shook his head to clear it and looked again—the dream remained. Quentin peered intently, forcing himself to see clearly. But again he saw the force of knights moving down the hillside toward them.
“Toli!” he cried, lurching in his saddle as he flung his good arm out to his side. The Jher glanced quickly over his shoulder and dropped back to Quentin’s side. “They have found us!” he shouted. Toli jerked his head to where Quentin was pointing, and his startled look confirmed at once that it was not a dream. They were being chased.
He gave a shrill whistle that brought the seneschal around, and at once all three riders turned their horses to the shoulder of the hill beside them.
Blazer’s hooves bit into the soft earth and flung it skyward as his powerful legs churned. The horse stretched its back and fought its way up the slope of the hill. Quentin threw himself down along the horse’s neck in an effort to maintain his precarious balance.
Now he could hear the hooves of the strange knights’ horses thundering closer, and he thought he heard a shout. Bending low, he looked along Blazer’s flank behind him and saw that two riders descended into the shallow gully. Another leaped it and came on.
In that moment of inattention, Blazer spurted ahead and stumbled over a rock protruding from the hill, throwing Quentin sideways as he fought to regain his feet. Quentin’s fingers, so tightly wrapped around the pommel, were wrenched free, and he felt himself sliding backward over the rump of his mount. His injured arm flailed uselessly as his good hand grabbed for the bridle strap. He was not quick enough. Almost before he knew what was happening, he tumbled out of the saddle and landed on the hillside.
On impact the air rushed out of his lungs, and the night suddenly flashed in a blaze of brilliant stars, their scintillating rays stabbing through his brain. He rolled over, breathless, fighting to force air back into his lungs. He pushed himself up on one knee and threw aside his cloak, which had wrapped itself around his arm. With a shock he realized that he did not have a sword or a poniard with which to defend himself.
He heard someone shouting and looked up the hill to see Toli wheeling around to come after him. But it was too late. When he turned again, the first of their pursuers came pounding up. The horse reared, and the knight looked down on him. In the pale moonlight Quentin thought he knew the face that sought his; there was something familiar about it, but he could not be sure. He shook his throbbing head slowly, and he heard the whinny of his own mount behind him.
“Are you hurt?” said the knight towering over him. Quentin could not believe his ears—here was a tongue he recognized. The knight leaned down to look at him closely.
Yes, the face seemed familiar, like one he had seen in a dream long ago. But it was real, and it peered down on him intently, eyes shining in the soft light.
“Quentin? By the gods’ beards! Quentin!” the knight shouted, jumping from his horse.
Quentin shook his head dazedly. He passed his hand in front of his eyes. “Who is it?”
There was a shout behind him. “Theido. Is it true?” The voice was Toli’s, and in an instant the Jher was beside him, tugging at him.
“Theido? How . . . ?” Quentin could speak no more. He sank back as heavy vapors of darkness covered him, his consciousness receding swiftly. He heard many shouts and voices close at hand and the sound of horses galloping in. He struggled to keep his eyes open, but his lids had grown leaden, and there was no fight left in him. It seemed that he had grown light as down, for he felt himself borne up as on a sudden gust to ride on the wings of the wind, which now roared in his ears.