Quentin, are you sleeping?” Toli crept to the high, wide bed on which his friend rested. Quentin opened his eyes when Toli came near.
“No, only resting.” Both looked at his freshly bandaged arm, set with splints of bone and wrapped in new linen. A sling of forest green—to match his cloak—was bound around his arm, which rested on his chest. “Is it time?”
“Yes. The council will sit within the hour. Would you have me attend in your stead?”
“No, I feel much better. We will both go. Has everyone arrived?” Quentin raised himself up off the bed and swung his legs over the edge. Toli placed a hand under his arm and helped him.
“The lords of the flatlands have not arrived, but are expected to be late. Theirs is a far journey. But Eskevar thinks it best not to put off beginning.
“The others are here, or will arrive shortly. Rudd, Dilg, Benniot, Fincher,Wertwin, Ameronis, and Lupollen—those I have already seen.”
“Those are enough to ratify any decision the king might make, though I do not believe there will be dissent.”
“Do not be too certain of that. Mensandor has been long at peace, and men grow soft. Some will wish to avoid conflict at any price.”
“Then we must make them see that is impossible.” He looked at his friend sadly. “Toli, I do not love war; you know that. But I have seen enough to know that it has come to us whether we will or not. We have no choice if this land is to remain free.”
They walked from Quentin’s apartment to the round, high-domed council chamber in the north tower, passing through the walled courtyard where the king sometimes held vigil when weighty matters were bearing on his mind. The courtyard was clean and fresh and the sun directly overhead.
As they entered the yard, Theido and Ronsard, deep in discussion with another, waved them over. “Ah, Quentin! It looks as though Durwin has done his worst on you. How do you feel?”
“Fit enough. He wanted to keep me abed with a potion of his, but I declined. It would have meant missing the council.”
“Do you know Lord Wertwin?” Theido introduced the man standing with them.
“He has some interesting tales to tell in council,” added Ronsard.
“Yes, your lands lie to the south of here, do they not?” inquired Quentin.
“That is correct. Just beyond Pelgrin, above Persch.” The man smiled warmly, and Quentin noticed he was missing a tooth in his lower jaw; but that and his leathery, weather-beaten visage gave the lord the rugged appearance of a tenacious fighter.
“Sir, if you do not mind my asking, however did you come so soon? It would take a messenger two days to reach you.”
“Ordinarily, yes. But I was already on my way here—as I was telling Theido and Ronsard just now.”
Quentin did not need to ask what had prompted Lord Wertwin’s trip, but he did note its timeliness. They talked a bit longer until a page came out from the tower entrance across the courtyard to ask them to come in and take their places.
They filed into the tower and up a short flight of spiraled stairs to an upper floor. The arrow loops cast a dim light in the narrow passage, which gave out onto a great, round chamber with a polished wooden floor. Shuttered windows were thrown wide to let in the sunlight, giving the chamber an open, airy feeling, though it was hollowed out of massive tower walls sixteen feet thick.
In the center of the room, a ring of chairs had been established, one for each member of the council. But there were others among them, and Quentin wondered who would occupy them. Behind each chair a stanchion raised a banner bearing the device and blazon of each participant. Some of the council members were already seated, and behind their chairs stood a squire or page ready to do his lord’s bidding. Other council members stood apart, with heads together, and talked in low tones; the room buzzed with the murmur of their conversation.
Quentin found his chair, marked by his own blazon: a flaming sword over a small dragon emblem. He smiled to himself when he saw it. The only time he ever saw his device was when in Askelon. Next to his chair sat Toli’s, whose device was a white stag running on a field of forest green. He identified Ronsard’s, a mace and a flail crossed and raised in a gauntleted hand. Theido’s was the readily recognizable black hawk with wings outstretched. There were others he had never seen before, and several chairs had no banners.
In all there were fifteen chairs in the ring, but a few more stood along the wall to be added if the need arose. One by one the remaining council members took their places, and the room fell silent in expectation of the king’s entrance.
Presently a side door opening into a private chamber creaked on its iron hinges, and Durwin stepped in without ceremony, followed by the king. How tired he looks, thought Quentin. Not a king to inspire his nobles with a stirring call to arms.
Eskevar took his chair and Durwin the chair beside him, which was unmarked by a banner. The king began at once.
“My noble friends, thank you for coming.” He looked at each one around the circle. “My heart is heavy with the thought of what must be accomplished this day. I am no stranger to war and no coward. Some of you have stood with me in many glorious campaigns, and some where there was no glory for either side.
“Prudent men do not seek war, for it brings nothing good. But men of valor do not shrink from it if called to defend their homeland against a rapacious foe.
“Such is now the case. Mensandor is under invasion. At this moment foreign armies are burning our cities on the southern coast. The people there have no lords to protect them, so they flee to the hills and to the mountains.”
This last statement sent a ripple of surprise and outrage coursing through the assembled nobles. Lord Lupollen, whose lands were in the north, below Woodsend, raised his voice above the others and asked, “What enemy is this? I have heard nothing of an invasion.”
The king answered when all had quieted down once more. “As I bore certain suspicions regarding such activity, I sent the lord high marshal and the noble Theido, a trusted friend of the crown, to discover the source of my unease. I will let them tell you what they have found.”
Ronsard spoke first. “My lords, with an accompaniment of four knights, Theido and I rode out, striking first to the south. We saw nothing unusual until we reached the sea pass below Persch, where we met a band of villagers fleeing to the north by night.
“These villagers told us of an enemy moving northward along the coast. They also said that Halidom had been destroyed completely. We proposed to ride to Halidom to see with our own eyes the veracity of this report. The villagers seemed frightened and given to exaggeration.”
“Was Halidom destroyed?” asked one of the lords.
“Yes sir. There was nothing left of it but a charred spot on the earth.”
“What? Surely you jest?”
“Not at all, sir.” The voice was Theido’s. “It is as he said. And not only Halidom. Illem is gone as well.”
“But did you not see the enemy?”
“We saw no enemy, and only one survivor of the destruction, who died as we stood over him.”
“This is ridiculous! You ask us to believe—,” sputtered Lupollen.
“Believe what you will, sir,” snapped Ronsard. “We say only what our eyes have seen.”
“I must voice my dismay at this news, Sire,” said Lord Ameronis. “It does seem most unlikely. We have been at peace for over ten years, and it has been far longer since an enemy dared set foot on the soil of Mensandor. Are we to think that a raiding party has landed and terrorized the villages? That surely can be dealt with forthrightly, and no Council of War need stand to ratify such a move.”
“Yes,” agreed Lord Rudd, “it sounds very like the time when the Vrothgar came up the Lower Plinn into the Wilderlands. Once opposed, they left readily enough.”
Eskevar held up his hands for silence. “Please, my countrymen, if I thought that a stout body of knights would serve against this new menace, I would have dispatched them at once. But I have reason to believe the danger we now face is greater than that of a handful of barbarians raiding our cattle and crops.” He nodded to Lord Wertwin.
“Noble friends, I came here today of my own volition, meeting the king’s courier on the road. I agree with Eskevar—there is something here deserving more serious consideration. For the past half month or more, I have been receiving a steady traffic of refugees into my defenses. Some from as far away as Don: villagers, merchants, peasants. They have come begging protection and refuge from a terrible foe which has come against them—though ’tis true few of them have ever seen him.”
Lord Rudd loudly challenged him. “It is not so strange an occurrence to have a few peasants stirred up over nothing at all. That no one seems to have seen this awesome and mysterious enemy is proof enough for me that if he exists at all, he is no more than a band of ruffians to be crushed with a single blow.” When Rudd had finished speaking, there were murmurs of approval and nods of agreement.
“I have seen this enemy!” said Quentin boldly. All eyes turned toward him. “And I can say he is no mere band of ruffians or barbarians seeking meat and seed. Toli and I were captured at Illem on the night that town was sacked and burned.”
He waited for his words to sink in.
“For two days we were held prisoner, escaping only with the help of one of the enemy’s own officials.” He paused to measure his words carefully.
“What we saw in that camp gave us to know that the army of Nin is no thieving tribe of barbarians, nor raiders after spoil. The Ningaal are a highly trained and disciplined army, and they are moving against Mensandor.”
“I do not believe it!” shouted Lupollen angrily. “If such a foe exists, we would know it.”
“Obviously he is cunning beyond belief!” snapped Ameronis with cold sarcasm.
“Believe it!” the high-pitched, cutting tone was a woman’s. The assembly turned in their chairs as one to see who dared invade the king’s council chambers.
Quentin saw Esme standing before the door to the inner chamber. She had entered undetected and had heard what had been said.
“Who is this woman, Sire? Send her away! The Council of War is no place for a female.” There were other complaints of a similar nature.
“My lords, she will be heard. I have asked her to join us, and it seems that now we may hear her story. Continue, my lady, but let me inform this assembly that before them stands Princess Esme, daughter of King Troen of Elsendor.”
Esme, looking every inch the princess that she was, with a thick circlet of silver on her brow and sheathed in a gown of deepest vermilion— Bria’s no doubt—approached the king’s chair to stand before the council. Her dark hair hung in rings to her shoulders; her black eyes sparked with an intense flame.
“I have come to Askelon at the behest of my father to deliver a message of warning and a plea for help. What I have heard this day makes me fear for both our lands.
“Late this spring, one of my father’s ships was attacked at sea, but managed to fight off the attacker and return to port. Troen sent to discover who this enemy might be and ordered the commander of his personal vessel to search out and engage the pirateer. The ship never returned, but an answer came—for two days later, fivescore enemy ships were sighted off our southern coast by a fishing boat. My father issued forth the fleet to engage them; my brothers took command of our ships. I was dispatched here with the warning that a very great and powerful enemy has risen and would seize our lands. I have also come to ask King Eskevar to send help in our time of need.”
Nothing was said following Esme’s account until Eskevar asked, “Have you, then, nothing to say regarding these tidings?”
They must believe her, thought Quentin, even if they do not believe my own story. Esme has spoken with such strength and assurance.
“As you tell it, my lady, it makes a very convincing tale. But are we to understand that you believe the supposed enemy within our borders is the same that engages your father’s fleet? I find that quite unlikely.” With that speech Ameronis gained a few more nods of assent.
Eskevar exploded angrily. “You seem bent on disavowing any evidence we bring before you. Why is that, Lord Ameronis?”
Ameronis was cool in his reply. “The realm has been at peace for many years. I do not wish to see this hard-won peace so easily discarded. I, for one, do not see cause for mustering troops to oppose an enemy which no one has seen and whose intentions are inexplicable.”
“Ah, we strike the heart of the matter at last!” said the Dragon King. A high color had risen to his cheeks and brow. His eyes, sunken and dark-rimmed from his long illness, blazed brightly. He nodded to one of the pages, who disappeared into the inner chamber to reappear a moment later with a tall stranger. The stranger, swathed in a loose-fitting blue garment, with chains of gold around his neck, entered and bowed low before the assembled lords. His black beard bristled like the quills of a hedgehog, and his eyes were sharp and direct.
“I present to you Myrmior, prime minister to the high suzerain of Khas-I-Quair. He it was who made possible the escape of my ward and his friend. Tell us what you have to say, brave sir.”
Myrmior bowed again and touched his fingertips to his forehead. “It was not my intention to come before you in this way, but the king has willed it so, and I obey.” He spoke smoothly, and his words had an edge that cut at the pride of the assembled lords who glared at him.
“I was captured four years ago when the home of my people was brought under subjection to Nin, called the Destroyer. The high suzerain was beheaded like a thief in the village square after a long, bloody war that lasted five years. I, his minister, became a slave to one of Nin’s warlords.
“I have seen much in the years since my captivity began. Nation after nation has fallen; the realms of the mighty have been crushed; lands have been laid waste before Nin and his horde. Each victory makes the Ningaal stronger and pricks their leader’s insatiable hunger for greater conquests. He has extended his empire from Sanarrath to Pelagia, and from Haldorland to Artasia. He will not stop until he rules the world, until all lands are his and all men his slaves.
“Now he has turned his eyes upon the west and the nations of the mighty kings. If he succeeds here, as he has in every other land where he has loosed his warlords, there will be no stopping him. He will achieve what his evil heart contemplates: Nin will be the god before whom all men bow and worship.”
Myrmior’s voice had risen steadily throughout his speech, and now the last words rang in the council chamber. No one moved or breathed. All eyes were on this mysterious messenger of doom.
“Do not deceive yourselves, lords of Mensandor. You cannot hide in your castles behind your strong walls. He will search you out and destroy you as surely as the snake catches the rat.
“Hear my words and beware! He has turned his eyes upon your kingdom and will have it for his own. There is nothing he cannot do and nothing he does not dare, for his star is growing in the east, and soon all men will know the terror of his name.”