There is naught to your discredit, Sire. You have done what a man can do. We will try again,” Theido said soothingly.
They all sat gloomily around a large oaken table in the king’s private chamber. Eskevar stared dully at his hands clasped before him. He had raged and fumed and threatened to no avail. The Council of War had ended in a deadlock. Lords Lupollen and Ameronis openly stood against raising an army,Wertwin and Fincher pledged their support, and the rest were undecided.
“I should have waited for the others to come; they could have made the difference. I was too hasty . . . too hasty.”
“No,” objected Durwin. “You did the right thing. The others will not arrive until tomorrow or the next day. We need to move at once. Who knows what a delay of two days might mean? Kingdoms have fallen in less time.”
“Meanwhile, Lupollen and Ameronis have ample time to sway the others to their side.” Eskevar sighed, and the room seemed to grow darker.
“They will all come ’round when they see the danger,” offered Ronsard.
“But will it be too late?” wondered Theido. “I say we should send the king’s knights out now to engage the invaders and hold them until an army can be raised. We must not let them reach Askelon unchallenged.”
“Noble sirs, may I offer an observation?” It was Myrmior, who had been sitting in silence since the private council had begun. His impassioned appeal before the council had been to no avail, and he had retreated into a sullen mood, as had most everyone else.
“Nothing short of total strength will dismay them. Nin’s armies are well trained and battle-ready. And there are more of them than you know. The force which Quentin and Toli met with was only one of four which are within Mensandor’s borders. They are all moving toward Askelon by various routes.”
“Why would they?” asked Ronsard. “Why not come en masse?”
“Nin long ago learned it was best when invading a strange land whose strengths were unknown to move in smaller forces, thus dividing the defense.
“A few valiant men may stand against many given a tactical advantage— is this not so?”
Nods around the table affirmed it was indeed. “But it is almost impossible to defend on four fronts at the same time. That is what you propose to do.”
“And with few enough knights to do it,” noted the king sourly. “Our cause is lost before trumpet has been blown or blade drawn.”
“Say not so, Sire. There is much we may do with the men we have. The others will fall in line when they learn the threat is real and not imagined.” Ronsard struck the table with his fist. He looked around to the others for support of his view.
“Ronsard is right,” said Durwin slowly. “There is much we may do. And the sooner we begin, the better. It would be in our interest to—”
Just then there came a rap on the chamber door. A sentry stepped in and, bowing low, said, “Sire, there is a priest without who would speak to you without delay. He has been told you are in council, but will not be put off.”
“Will he identify himself ?” asked the king.
“He is Biorkis, as he says,” offered the sentry.
“The high priest? Here?” Quentin looked at Toli, who only nodded mysteriously.
“Allow the high priest to enter. We will admit him.”
The door was thrown wide, and an instant later Biorkis, dressed in his coarse brown robes, swept in to stand before them, a rueful smile upon his wrinkled, white face.
“Ariel has not forsaken his servant,” the priest said. “All is as I would have wished.”
Durwin leaped from the table so quickly, he sent his stool crashing to the floor. “Biorkis! Have you given up your vows at last?” The hermit strode to his old friend and clasped him by the arms.
The priest shook his head sadly; his white, braided beard wagged from side to side. “It seems as if I have been released from my vows whether I would or no.” Durwin’s eyebrows arched upward. “I mean,” said the priest, “that I have been expelled from the temple.”
“But why? Certainly it cannot be for any but a most serious offense— and what that would be from you I cannot imagine.”
The former high priest turned to the others as Durwin drew him to the table, giving Quentin a special greeting. “It was for the most serious offense, my lords. I have been guilty of standing in the way of gross ambition. The charges were trifling ones; I persisted in seeing danger where none could be seen, in reading omens in the stars which threatened the security of the temple.”
Durwin nodded knowingly. “We have been cast out this day for roughly the same reasons. But more of that later. I know that what you have come to tell us has not been watered down by your troubles. High priest or no, your heart will remain steadfast once it has decided on a course.”
“Well you remember me, Durwin. You were ever one who could read a man’s inmost soul. Yes, I have come with a message, but seeing you all here leads me to believe that I have come too late for my message to be of any great service to you.”
“Say it, by all means,” said Eskevar, “and let us judge its worth. That it has cost you your place in the temple is no small thing; rather, it speaks for the importance of your errand. What would you say to us?”
Biorkis bowed to them all; Durwin righted his stool, offered it to the priest, and went himself in search of another. When he had been seated, Biorkis spread his hands on the table and began.
“My lords, in my position of high priest, I worked tirelessly in the sifting of elements to discover the destinies of men and nations. It is my belief that religion should serve man in this way.
“When an omen presents itself, it is studied carefully to determine its import and consequence. I say that to say this: an omen has arisen the like of which has never been seen. It is a star, known to all by its common name—the Wolf Star. Unchanged since time began, it has recently begun to wax with unaccustomed brilliance. It has grown so quickly as not to be believed by any who have not followed its course as closely as I have.”
“This is the star you spoke of, is it not?” Eskevar turned toward Myrmior, who merely dipped his head in assent.
“I see you know of it. Then I need not tell you how curious a thing it is. I have searched through the records of the temple. Back and back— as far back as records have been kept—thousands of years and more.” Biorkis smiled and inclined his white head toward Quentin.
“This I did after your visit to me that night. Your curiosity about the star proved to me that there was something beyond novelty that study might reveal.”
Quentin answered, “As I remember, you were very gloomy in your predictions even then. It was evil, you said, and more.”
“Ah, that I was. Now I know I was right to believe as I did. The sacred records of the temple reveal that such a sign is not unknown. Twice before, long ages ago, such stars have been seen to grow in the sky. And though the old writing is hard to discern, and the meaning of the words is now unclear, it may be said with certainty that such omens betokened the very worst catastrophes for mankind.”
“The end of the age!” said Durwin.
“The end of the age,” agreed Biorkis. “In chaos and death. Destruction such as no man nor beast can survive. Nations are swept away; kingdoms vanish in a single hour, never to return. The face of the earth is changed forever. Lands rise up out of the sea, and continents submerge. All that was shall be changed in the mighty roar of the heavens rending apart. The stars fall from their courses, and the seas rise up. The rivers burn, and the earth crumbles away.
“Thus is the end of the age, and it is at hand.”
The midnight conversation that he and Toli had had in Durwin’s chamber when they had first come to Askelon leaped vividly to Quentin’s mind, inspired by Biorkis’s pronouncement. Conversation continued around the table; the voices of Ronsard, Theido, Eskevar, and Durwin sounded in his ears, but Quentin did not attend to them. They receded farther and farther from him, and then he heard them no more.
It seemed to him that he now entered a waking dream.
A dark, limitless horizon stretched before him, the darkness brooding and seething as a beast hungering and lying in wait for its prey. Quentin saw a small, bright figure laboring up a rocky slope to stand at last on the top of the hill.
It was a knight in armor, and as he looked more closely, he saw that the armor shone with a cool radiance, scattering light like a prism. The knight faced the brooding darkness and placed his hands to the hilt of his sword. He drew forth his sword, and it flashed with a burning white fire.
He raised his sword, and the darkness retreated before him. Then, with a mighty heave, the knight flung the sword into the air, where it spun, throwing off tongues of fire that filled the sky. As he did so, the knight shouted in a resounding voice, which seemed to echo in Quentin’s ears, “The sword shall burn with flames of fire. Darkness shall die: conquered, it flees on falcon’s wings.”
The talking at the table ceased. All eyes turned toward Quentin, who stood before them, shaking his head and blinking as one awakening from a dream. The surprise on their faces, their open mouths, let Quentin know that he had not heard those words only; he had spoken them aloud before everyone there. The voice echoing in his ears was his own.
“What did he say?” Ronsard wondered.
“It was—I am sorry, excuse me,” Quentin blurted. Toli peered at him through squinted eyes. There were stares all around.
“Where did you hear that?” demanded Durwin, jumping up.
“Why, I heard it just now . . . in a dream. I seem to have had a dream while everyone was talking. I do not know what it means.”
“I do!” Biorkis fairly shouted. “It is from The Chronicles of the Northern Kings.”
“Yes, it is. ‘The Prophecy of the Priest King.’” Durwin towered over Quentin, staring down upon him, eyes sparkling with a fierceness Quentin had never seen. Quentin squirmed uncomfortably on his stool, feeling foolish and light-headed.
“Tell me that you have never read that anywhere, nor heard it spoken in our presence, and I shall believe you.”
“I tell you the truth, Durwin, I never have. The words mean nothing to me, whatever you say. I know them not.”
“It is possible that you may have heard them in Dekra,” mused Durwin. “But I think not. You would remember if you had.”
“What is this?” asked Eskevar, his voice brittle with amazement.
Theido and Ronsard merely gazed in surprise at what was happening before them; Myrmior rubbed his hands absently over his bearded chin, eyes narrowed to slits.
“My lord, it is a wonder! A most powerful sign.” Biorkis closed his eyes. His head began to weave with the cadence, and the old priest’s voice swelled to fill the room as he began to recite the ancient prophecy.
“The stars shall look upon the acts of man. They shall bring forth signs and wonders. Cities of old are still to be seen; the cunning work of giants, the skillful shaping of stone. Wind is the swiftest messenger. The clouds shall fly free forever. Thunder speaks with a mighty voice; the temples quake upon their foundations. The sacred rock shall be cloven. The spear struck upon shield shall make war. The eagle shall ascend on wings of strength; his offspring shall be honored among men. Courage shall be in the warrior. The jewel in the ring shall sit high and broad. The good man in his country shall do deeds of glory. The snake in his chamber shall be pierced. The valor of the knight shall be strong iron; his name is sung in the halls of his fathers. The wolf in the forest shall be craven. The boar in the wood is bold in the strength of his tusks. The king shall have a throne. The priest shall wear a crown. The sword shall burn with flames of fire. Darkness shall die; conquered, it flees on falcon’s wings.
“The dragon under the hill shall be ancient; lordly, bold, and unafraid. The gods of high places shall be thrown down; theirs shall be the rage of death. The Most High shall suffer them no more. From out of the temple he has called his servant; his ways shall be exalted.”