Esme and Bria were waiting for them as they emerged from the council chambers. Quentin smiled when he saw them, though he did not feel like smiling. The two young women had become such fast friends, they were seen together everywhere, and it pleased Quentin to think that, though very different in many ways, they shared much in common, especially the same iron resolve in matters that touched them deeply. They were, he reflected, the living idea of the word princess.
Quentin had not spoken upon emerging from the chamber. He felt weak and a little frightened of what he might say next. The vision and prophecy had unnerved him, making him feel he could no longer trust himself to behave normally. Toli had ushered them all away to a quiet spot in the kitchen, where they could sit and munch apples and be alone.
After a while Quentin recovered some of his usual good humor and began to talk about what had happened. He told of the talk around the table, and of his dream, and the prophecy he had uttered, and how excited Durwin and Biorkis had become after hearing it. It was then that Esme related her own experience with the daughter of Orphe, and the prophecy that had been given to her in exchange for the meal she had cooked for the oracle.
Esme recited the strange prophecy, and Quentin was struck with how similar it was to the one he had himself spoken. Both spoke of a sword of power that would vanquish the invaders with a stroke. When Esme had finished her story, they had all fallen silent for a long time, not daring to break the spell that had descended upon the little group.
For Quentin the time of silence was welcome. He turned the words over in his mind, sifting them, holding them as they tumbled through his consciousness. His vision, so long ago received in his Blessing of the Ariga at the temple of Dekra, seemed now to be taking form, unfolding before him and pulling him along. His vision. Long had he pondered it and held it in his heart. Part of him wanted to run to it, embrace whatever lay ahead, knowing that he would never know true peace unless he did. Another part of him wanted to hold it off, to turn away from its terrible, fierce glory. And Quentin was torn between the two.
Quentin and Toli stood in the night-darkened passageway and knocked. They heard a shuffle on the other side of the heavy door, and it was drawn open slowly. Ronsard’s broad, handsome face grinned back at them.
“Enter, friends,” he said. “We have been waiting for you.”
“What is the meaning of this summons? Ronsard, Theido—have you nothing better to do than keep tired men from their beds?” Quentin stepped into Durwin’s chamber, made bright by the clustered lights of tall candletrees placed around the room.
“You will regret those harsh words soon, sir,” said Theido quietly. Quentin had spoken in fun, but though Theido smiled, Quentin could tell there was an uneasiness in the knight’s manner.
“You are going away!” said Quentin in dismay. He glanced quickly at their faces and knew that he had guessed correctly.
“Yes,” said Ronsard gently. “Before sunrise.”
“But—I do not understand. Why so soon?”
“It must be,” explained Theido. “We are leading the king’s own knights against the Ningaal. We must move at once before they have time to draw their strength together.”
“Come in and sit down. We have a little time to part as friends ought,” said Durwin warmly.
Quentin moved woodenly to a chair in front of the empty hearth. Toli settled on the arm of the chair beside him. What the dark-eyed Jher was feeling could not be read upon his face, though his eyes had gone hard.
“I know it comes as a shock to you, Quentin. But this is the way it must be.” Theido’s tone was smooth and assured. “I know you had your heart set on coming with us, but I assume you also know that cannot be. With your arm, you would not last the first clash of battle.”
Quentin was mildly flattered to think that Theido had so high an estimation of his courage. Actually, he had no wish to encounter the brutal Ningaal again.
“That is not the cause of my misgivings, though you do me honor. You cannot go against the Ningaal with the king’s retinue alone; it would be disastrous! There are too many, and they are disciplined soldiers every one. I have seen them.”
“We dare not wait any longer,” said Ronsard. “Every day we delay may mean much in time to come. But do not worry overmuch; we do not go entirely alone. Lord Wertwin will meet us with his troops—he will raise a hundred sturdy knights and arms for all.”
“But four hundred or five hundred—what is that against Gurd’s thousands? And he is but one of four, if Myrmior speaks true.”
“I think we may say that Myrmior speaks true,” laughed Ronsard. “He is going with us. He will help us to plan our strategy against the warlords.”
“It is no small thing,” agreed Theido. “His help shall prove invaluable; I have no doubt of it.” He leaned forward and searched Quentin’s face with earnest, dark eyes. “We must go, Quentin. We must gain this time for Eskevar to bring the other lords around.
“We did not expect such a poor show among our peers. But that is the way of it. They will see that war has come, and they will join us in the end. Of that I have no fear.”
“But in the meantime, while they are making up their minds, you will all be killed!” said Quentin bitterly. “No. there must be some better way.”
“This is how it will be,” said Ronsard. He stood and walked to Quentin and put his hand upon his shoulder. “Do not fear for us, for we do not fear for ourselves. A knight can have but one death, and that one with honor or he is no true knight. I have seen enough battle that it holds no terror for me. I am content.
“We have no intention of moving foolishly. In truth, you will not see two more cautious and prudent men as we. But we must give the king time to pull the lords together, or our cause is lost before it is begun. Myrmior has shown us that, at least.
“Besides, I do not think you will be idle yourself. If I understand Durwin aright, he means to employ you most strenuously. You will have no time to think about us.”
Quentin threw himself out of his chair and grabbed Ronsard by the arm with his good hand. “I will always think about you! Both of you have been more than comrades to me. I wish I could go with you and share your portion. I would gladly take my place on the battlefield with you once again.”
“And so you shall. There will be enough battle for all of us, I’ll wager.” Theido came to stand beside a tearful Quentin.
“The injury that keeps me here was more hurtful than I knew,” Quentin told them, embracing them both in turn. “Go, then, and may the Most High go with you and grant you his unfailing protection.”
“And you,” the two knights said in unison.
They moved reluctantly toward the door. Toli, coming up behind Quentin, shook both their hands and wished them, in his native tongue, singing blades and shields that never fall. And turning to Durwin he said, “Good hermit, will you say a prayer to the Most High for our brothers?”
“Of course—I was about to suggest it myself.” The hermit of Pelgrin came forward and raised his hands before the two knights. Ronsard sank to one knee, and Theido knelt down beside him.
“God Most High, who ever guides our steps and hears our prayers,” he said softly, “hear us now. Be to these our stout companions the sharp edge of their blade, the strength of their arm, and the protection of their shield. Show them mighty among the enemy; show them dauntless and unafraid. Go before them into battle as a lance to drive the evil from our shores. Be to them a comfort and a guide; refresh them when they are weary, and bear them up when strength is gone.
“Banish fear from their hearts, and give them wisdom to lead their men to victory. Be to them the glory which will shine through the darkness, and bring them home to us once more.”
The knights rose slowly. “This god of yours, Durwin, can he do so much?” asked Ronsard softly.
“He can do all things, my friend. Do not fear to call upon him in any need. He is ever quick to aid his servants.”
“Then from now on I will serve him—this God Most High.” He grinned at Quentin. “See, you are not the only one who listens to this prattling hermit. I have a care for my spirit, too.”
“Truly, this is a time of wonders unceasing.” Quentin advanced and offered his hand to them. “Farewell, my friends.”
“Farewell, Quentin. Farewell.”