You have returned none too soon, my young man.” Durwin scowled as he examined Quentin’s swollen arm. “It appears your arm has been broken and has begun to set.”
“That is good, is it not?” asked Bria anxiously. She held Quentin’s left hand and snuggled close to him as the hermit poked and prodded Quentin’s injured right arm. Quentin’s filthy tunic had been removed and a soft robe draped across his chest. His arm rested on a cushion on a low table which had been pushed up to his couch.
“It will heal, Durwin—yes?” Quentin forced himself to ask the question he feared asking the most. Durwin ignored it and answered Bria’s instead.
“I feel it is not good, my lady. Ordinarily, yes. But not this time. As it is, the arm will never heal properly.”
Durwin hastened to reassure them both. “But I have seen this before. The arm will heal”—he paused to assess the effect his next words would have—“but I must break it again and reset it correctly.”
Quentin winced, and a tear formed in the corner of Bria’s eye. “It hurts me to see you in pain, my love,” she said.
“There is but little pain. At first, yes, but not now. I can bear it.”
Durwin bent once more to his examination of the arm and shoulder. “That is what worries me, Quentin. There should be pain—a great deal of pain. I have never known it otherwise. I fear something of greater consequence than a broken bone is involved here. But what it is I cannot say.”
A knock sounded on the chamber door, and Theido stepped into the room. “What say you, Durwin? Will our young warrior’s wing heal to fly again?” Catching Durwin’s troubled frown, he added, “If I have misspoken I beg your pardon, sir.”
“No, no. You are right,” Durwin blustered. “I am being a silly old man. Of course the arm will heal. We will reset it at once.”
“At once?” Quentin closed his eyes.
“It would be best.”
“After we dine, at least?” offered Theido. “In the hall the meal is being laid. Better to face it on a full stomach, eh?”
“There is no harm. I had forgotten you all have ridden very far. Yes, there is a wonderful meal in honor of your safe return. We can attend to our business after we have eaten.”
“Then let us go directly,” said Theido. “I, for one, stand in need of some rejoicing this night. There will be little enough in the days to come.”
“Meaning what?” asked Durwin.
“Eskevar has announced a Council of War. It begins tomorrow.”
Theido nodded gravely and left.
Durwin and Bria helped Quentin to his feet and pulled the robe around him after putting his injured arm in a sling. Then they all made their way to the Dragon King’s great hall.
The hall, shimmering in the light of a hundred golden torches, was even larger and more glorious than Quentin remembered. It seemed as if it had been many years since he had been in the hall. Steeped in its own kind of emotion and majestic drama, it was his favorite place in all the castle, and had deeply intrigued him since he had first seen it as a boy.
A crackling fire roared in the massive hearth, and the flames on the ranks of black stone columns marched the entire length of the hall. Long tables had been set down the center of the hall, and these terminated at the dais where the king’s table stood. A royal blue baldachin edged in silver and bearing the king’s blazon arched gracefully above his table.
The great hall was filled with people. Servants rushed here and there carrying huge platters of meat—fish, fowl, venison, pork, and dozens of roasts on spits. Knights and lords, some with their falcons on their arms, strolled with their ladies. Minstrels wandered through the crowd or played for smaller groups on request. Maidens with flowers in their hair flirted coyly with passing youths. The hall was a riot of color, a meandering current of gaiety.
Quentin’s heart swelled within him as he beheld the splendor of the Dragon King’s hall.
Two servants carrying a basin came hurrying up as the three entered. The basin was in the shape of a dragon and contained warm water scented with roses. Quentin dipped his good hand, while Bria washed it for him and then dried it with a soft linen cloth offered by one of the servants. Durwin dipped his hands, and the two young servants dashed away to offer the courtesy to other newly arrived guests.
As they moved into the stream of the jovial guests, trumpets sounded from the far end of the hall.
“Ah,” said Durwin, “we are precisely on time. Let us take our seats.”
He moved at once to the high table, and Quentin and Bria followed. Toli and Esme met them as they ascended the dais to find their places, while servants scurried around, filling goblets of onyx with wine and ale. Esme fairly glowed in her bejeweled gown. For once, thought Quentin, she looked the princess she really was.
“This is most wonderful,” she cooed. “You are so kind, Bria, to lend me one of your beautiful gowns. I feel like a woman again, after all those days on the back of a horse.” The two young women laughed; Quentin and Toli looked on, smiling.
“Toli has most kindly conducted me all through the castle, and I am much impressed. I have long heard stories of Askelon’s wealth, but the stories do not tell half.”
“You are a most welcome guest, Esme,” said Bria warmly. “We must have a talk together soon. I think we may become very good friends.”
“I would like that. I have grown up among my brothers, and female friends were rare—I think my brothers scared them away. When my business here is at an end, perhaps I will tarry here with you.”
“Please, I can think of nothing better.”
“It seems our two young women are cut of the same cloth, eh, Toli?” Quentin had stepped close to his friend while the ladies talked happily together.
“Our women?” Toli suddenly blushed.
“Bria and Esme, of course. Do you think I do not see the way you look at Esme? I saw that look once before on your silly face—the day we fished her from the sea.”
“It is not your arm that is ailing; it is your head. You begin talking strangely; perhaps I should call Durwin to take you away. This atmosphere has addled your mind.”
“My head is whole, and my eyes are not deceived, my good friend.”
Toli blushed again. The trumpets sounded a final call, and Bria said, “Let us all be seated. Toli and Esme, you must sit near us. I will arrange it.”
After a bit of fuss, they sat down together. Quentin looked down the table—past the platters of meat and pastries, trenchers of pewter and silver, baskets of breads, and tureens of vegetables—to examine the guests who shared the high table. Ronsard, who sat with Myrmior on one side and Theido on the other, caught his eye and waved; an instant later he was once again deep in conversation with the lanky knight at his side. Durwin sat to the left of Toli and on the right of the king, whose exquisitely carved chair remained empty. The queen’s chair, smaller but equally handsome, was next to it and empty too.
Quentin peeped behind the trailing baldachin, expecting the king to emerge from behind it at any moment. But even as he did so, a hush fell over the noisy hall. The trumpets sounded a ringing flourish, and in swept King Eskevar and Queen Alinea. They moved slowly through the hall toward the high table, stopping to offer a greeting to their guests along the way.
Quentin was much relieved to see that Eskevar, though grave and gaunt, moved with a spring in his step and with head erect; the crown encircled his head with a ring of fiery red gold. If anything, the king’s recent illness had given him an aspect of determined strength, of invincibility.
The royal couple moved to the dais, stopping at Quentin’s place at the far end of the table before moving on to their own chairs. “I am glad to see you safely under my roof again, my son.” The king placed a hand gently on Quentin’s good shoulder. “Let me say again that I am sorry for your hurt.”
“It is ever my joy to sit at table with you, my lord. And we have said enough already of Toli’s and my trials. I am assured that my arm will be as fit as ever in no time.”
“That is good news, Quentin,” said Alinea. She smiled with a warmth that made all feel welcome and at ease.
“Come to me tonight after the games and we will sit and talk together,” said Eskevar. Quentin was about to speak, but Alinea broke in quickly.
“My lord, you have forgotten that young people have more amusing pursuits than to sit in a chamber on a pleasant summer’s eve.”
“Of course!” Eskevar laughed. “Forgive me. Yes, I had forgotten. There will be time enough for talking. Enjoy your evening, my young friends. I will see you on the morrow.”
They moved off, and Bria leaned near to Quentin and whispered, “Your first night back and I was afraid you would become my father’s captive.” Her green eyes held his for a moment. “Oh, do not ever leave again.”
“There is no place I would rather be than right here with you. But I think Durwin has plans for me this night, even if Eskevar does not. You have forgotten so quickly?”
“My poor darling, forgive me. I am a selfish woman. I would have you all to myself always. But may we not walk once around the garden? It is so lovely, and I have missed you so.”
One turn around the garden gave way to another, and then another. The two young couples had started off together, but Quentin soon lost sight of Toli and Esme among the winding paths.
The air was soft and warm and full of the perfume of the flora glowing softly in the moonlight in pale pastel hues. They had spoken of nothing and of nonsense and had laughed at their intimate jests, but now strolled in silence.
“Was it very bad for you?” asked Bria suddenly, but in an abstract way that made Quentin wonder what she meant.
“Being captured? Yes. I hope never to endure it again.”
“There is another kind of captivity which is terrible.”
“And that is?”
“Not knowing. When someone you love is far away and you cannot go with him, be with him, when you do not know what may happen to him . . . I was worried about you. I knew something horrible had happened.”
They walked along without speaking again for a long time. Bria sighed heavily, and Quentin murmured, “There is more on your mind, my love. What is it? Tell me.”
“I am ashamed of myself for thinking it,” Bria admitted reluctantly. “I know there is going to be a war—”
“Who has told you that?”
“No one, and no one need tell me. I just know it. Ever since you got back, I have seen nothing but Theido’s dark looks, and Ronsard has been sending messengers far and wide. You do not deny it, so it must be.”
“Yes, war is a fair possibility,” agreed Quentin.
“A fair certainty,” she corrected him. “I do not want you to go. You are injured. You would not have to go. You could stay here with me.”
“You know as well as I that would not be possible.”
“Too well I know it. The women of my family have long sent their men into battle—some have even ridden by their side. That is what makes me so ashamed. I do not care about any of that; I only want you safe.”
“Ah, Bria. How little I know you. You are possessed of an iron will and a spirit that shrinks from nothing under the heavens. I do not doubt that you could launch a thousand ships and send whole legions into battle; yet you tremble at the thought of just one soldier going away.”
“Yes, how little you know me if you think you are nothing more to me than just one soldier.” She sounded hurt and angry. Quentin, disappointed at his bungling comment, was about to make another attempt at soothing her when Durwin’s bellow boomed out behind them.
“There you are! I thought I would find you here in the only place lovers may be alone respectfully. I do not blame you for wishing to put off the ordeal at hand, but the sooner it is over, the sooner healing can begin.”
“You are right, Durwin, though I little welcome your remedy. Let us go.” He turned to Bria to take his leave.
“I am going too. You may need a woman’s touch. Besides, if someone does not watch you very closely, Durwin, you may break the wrong arm.”
“Have a care!” Quentin implored. “It is my arm you are talking about.”
“Come along,” Durwin instructed.
Bria leaned close and gave Quentin a quick kiss. “That is for courage,” she said. She kissed him again. “And that is for love.”
“Lady,” Quentin said, “I need them both tonight.”