The touch of a cool hand on his brow brought Quentin out of the deepest sleep he had ever known. He heard a voice somewhere above him say, “See there! He has come back. Heoth would not have him!”
He opened his eyes to see a ring of faces grinning down on him. Esme’s pretty brow wrinkled in concern quickly giving place to relief.
“There seems to be no escaping you,” remarked Quentin as he strained to sit up. There was laughter all around, and hands reached out to clap him on the back.
“We knew you could not elude us,” said Ronsard. “Oh, but it is good to see you alive.”
“Ronsard, Theido . . . I must be dreaming still. How did you find us?”
“It is no dream, my friend. But if not for this young woman”— Ronsard nodded to Esme kneeling next to him—“we would never have found you, nor even known to search. She showed us where to look.”
“You came back,” Quentin said.
“I had to protect my protectors, did I not?” Esme answered. Her sudden smile seemed to warm him from within. “Besides, I had already lost one escort, and I was determined not to lose another.” Her dark eyes suddenly welled with tears. “Forgive me for leaving you, sir. When I saw you pulled from your horse, I wanted to help you, but I could only think of my errand. I am sorry.”
Toli thrust his head in among those gathered around him. The smell of food that he brought with him reminded Quentin how hungry he was.
“Eat, Kenta. We have already done so. We will talk while you breakfast.” Toli set a steaming bowl before him, and Quentin fell to with a ready appetite.
“Myrmior has been telling us of your captivity. You have much to thank him for,” said Theido.
“Myrmior?” The name was strange to Quentin.
“You mean he has risked his life to bring you out of the enemy’s camp and you do not know his name?”
“There was not time enough for such pleasantries. We were quite busy with staying alive. And only half succeeding at that.”
“This one has a strong will to survive.” The deep rolling voice was the seneschal’s. “I am glad to know you, Lord Quentin.”
“I am no lord, Myrmior.”
“Better than that,” said Ronsard. “He is the king’s own son.”
“His ward,” Quentin corrected.
“Ward or son, I see I have chosen well the man to save. From now on, my lords, I am at your service. It will be an insult if you do not allow me to serve you in whatever ways you will.” Myrmior bowed low and touched his forehead with his fingertips.
“You have done service enough for the Dragon King. Your reward is yours to name once we reach Askelon and King Eskevar hears how you have rescued his own from certain death.”
“I was looking out for myself, sir. I, too, was held against my will by the terrible Ningaal. The risk was but a small one for me, even at that.” Myrmior beamed at Quentin and added, “Whatever gods rule this land, they have poured out their favor upon this one. I have never seen a man survive the wheel, and it was that which allowed me to convince Gurd to spare your life.
“And you”—he turned to Toli—“your failed attempt at rescue nearly cost my head as well as your own. But Myrmior is nothing if not resourceful. I turned it to advantage, though you had to endure the anguish of seeing the guard’s execution—and fearing the imminence of your own.”
“It was at least less severe than the execution itself would have been,” replied Toli.
“How did you come to be in the company of the—what did you call them?—the Ningaal?”
“The name Ningaal means ‘the Terror of Nin,’ his army. It is no secret how I came to be among them, but it is a story I would rather tell to your Dragon King.”
“There is much that you might tell, I would wager,” Ronsard put in. “But the sun is well up, and I think we must put as many leagues between us and the Ningaal as may be. The Dragon King awaits in Askelon, and we must not forget the fearful tidings we bring. There will be much to discuss when we sit down together. For now, it is enough that we reach the king as quickly as possible.”
“My thoughts exactly,” said Theido, rising to his feet.
“Quentin cannot ride in his condition, surely. If you like, I will remain with him and come hence on the morrow when he is more able to withstand the journey,” Esme offered.
Ronsard pulled on his chin. “I did not think that he would be unable to—”
“I can ride; I am well enough.” To show he meant what he was saying, Quentin fought to his feet, where he swayed uncertainly. He took two steps and pitched forward. Theido reached out a hand to catch him, but Quentin collapsed on the ground.
“It is your arm, is it? You cannot move it.”
Quentin rose to his knees, cradling his arm. “It will be all right. It is nothing.”
“It is enough. Why did you not say something?” Theido bent to examine the injured limb; it was swollen and discolored and hot to the touch.
“Well, we can do nothing for it here, but I do not like the look of it. Perhaps Toli and Esme should remain behind with you, though I must confess I like that even less.”
“No one will remain behind, and Kenta will not ride,” said Toli. “Ronsard, send two knights to bring me two young birches. I will fashion a deroit for him.”
“Excellent!” cried Ronsard. “I might have known you would have a solution—a litter. My knights will fetch you whatever you need.”
Despite Quentin’s protests, which grew feebler with time, the litter was constructed after a style used by the nomadic Jher. The finished deroit was strapped to Blazer, and before the sun had traveled an hour’s time, the party set off once more toward Askelon. Esme rode Blazer.
Quentin fumed at being trundled off like so much baggage, but his fussing was mostly for show. Inwardly, he was grateful to Toli for providing him with a means to rest along the way. For despite his assurance to Theido, Quentin was deeply worried about his arm. When he had fallen in the underbrush on the night of their unsuccessful escape, something had snapped—he remembered it vividly—and all the feeling had fled, and with it the ability to move the limb.
The weary party quit the forest they had been traveling through all day. The sun was lowering in a scarlet haze among flaming clouds as they stepped out of the sheltering boughs upon the hard-packed trail that would lead them to Askelon’s gates.
“Tonight we will sleep in proper beds with fresh linen,” said Ronsard. “And we will dine in the Hall of the Dragon King.”
“I wish that it were with lighter hearts than our own that we came here,” Theido replied darkly. “I rue the tidings we must lay upon his shoulders. It is a burden I would not wish on any man.”
“There will be a burden for all of us, I think,” mused Ronsard.
Presently the travelers rounded a bend in the road and came to the edge of a broad, shallow valley. Across the valley rose the great dome of rock upon which stood Castle Askelon, transformed in the gloaming into a city of light. The shadow stretching across the length of the valley had not reached the foundation rock of Askelon; the castle rose out of the purple shadow and glinted in the ruby light, a jewel with soaring spires and towers and graceful bartizans perched upon high walls.
“Oh, it is beautiful,” said Esme, her voice awed and breathless with admiration. “I never dreamed . . .”
“A god’s very palace! It is a wonder mortals dare intrude,” said Myrmior. “It far outshines even its own legends.”
Quentin, sprawled on the deroit, craned his neck to see the familiar shape of his beloved Askelon—a sight he never quite got used to, and one that always moved him strangely. It is far different from Dekra, he thought, but the Dragon King’s castle is also home to me. He gazed proudly upon the magnificent structure, rosy in the deepening blue of the twilight sky.
Toli, riding beside Quentin all the way, sat on his horse unmoved and stared at the twinkling jewel across the fair valley.
“What do you say, Toli? We are nearly home.”
Toli did not look at Quentin when he answered, and when he finally spoke, his voice was far away. “It does appear now to be as far as ever it was when we began this journey.”
As usual, Toli was seeing something very different from the others. And Quentin had learned it was no use trying to find out what the Jher meant by these mystical pronouncements.
Ronsard, at the head of the party, urged his mount forward. The others followed him down the gentle slope as the feathery wisps of evening mist began rising in the cool valley. The air was still and silent, a soft sigh upon the land. No one could have described a more perfect picture of peace as they gazed down into the valley growing green with the crops of the peasants, and to the east along the broad expanse of plain already falling to dusk.
From somewhere in the stillness, a bird trilled a poignant farewell as it winged homeward to the nest, and all at once a sadness came over the party. To Quentin, it seemed that some final word had been spoken, and he was indeed seeing Askelon as it would never appear again.