Quentin and Toli had been too preoccupied with their own preparations to think beyond what lay ahead. They had spent two days following the departure of the knights gathering supplies and making ready. Then early, before the sun had risen above the dark line of Pelgrin, Toli led the horses and pack animals out across the inner ward, through the inner curtain, and into the outer ward where Durwin and Quentin waited.
There they had been met by Alinea, Bria, and Esme. The women pressed gifts of food into their hands and exchanged kisses all around.
“Eskevar wished me to bid you farewell,” Alinea said. “He would have come to see you away, but a king does not say good-bye. So, for him and myself, farewell. Travel swiftly and return safely. Our hearts and our prayers go with you.”
Then Bria and Quentin had removed a little apart to speak the special feelings between them. Esme, with flowers in her hair, took one and gave it to Toli, who carried it over his heart beneath his baldric.
The three women had accompanied them across the drawbridge and stood there, tears splashing to the ground in a gentle rain, waving them good-bye until the narrow streets of Askelon had taken them from view.
The sadness of that parting settled heavy on Quentin’s spirit. It brooded over his waking hours for the better part of three days following. He spoke but little and moved about as one asleep. He did not notice that Toli, and to some extent Durwin, behaved in exactly the same way.
In his lonely meditation, Quentin turned again and again to the events of the hurried last days in Askelon, and especially the meeting in Durwin’s chambers that had lasted far into the night. It now seemed shadowy and indistinct, as if he were watching smoke trails curling and rising in the night air. But it seemed real enough then, and it was that particular event that was now speeding them on their way.
As they moved through the darkened pathways of Pelgrin Forest, now heavy with verdure, summer sitting full on every bough, Quentin rehearsed once more the happenings of that night.
After Theido and Ronsard left Durwin’s apartment, almost before their footsteps had diminished in the corridor, Biorkis had swept in with an armful of scrolls and parchments and map skins. Since the private council with Eskevar the day before, he had disappeared; Quentin had not seen him since he heard the old priest recite the ancient prophecy that still rang in his ears.
Biorkis, they were soon to discover, had busily buried himself in the castle’s athenaeum and there, stopping neither to eat nor sleep, scratched together the odd assemblage of material he now carried with him.
“I have found what we need, Durwin. It was not easy—the king’s library is not at all as orderly as the temple’s, but that is to be expected. Some of these writings are barely discernible—even to a knowing eye— and quite incomplete. But my memory, and yours, of course, Durwin, will serve where the parchments fail us.”
The old priest bustled and fretted so prodigiously in getting his texts arranged that Quentin laughed out loud. “Do not tell me we are to endure one of your interminable lessons! Spare us!”
Biorkis cocked his head to one side. “Do not think that it would harm you, sir. You have probably forgotten all I ever taught you.”
“Biorkis and I put our heads together upon leaving the king’s council,” Durwin explained. “I think you will be interested to hear what we have learned.” Although Durwin did not say it, Quentin knew by the glint of the hermit’s eye and the mood of high excitement that suddenly bristled in the room that the subject of the meeting had something to do with the prophecy and his strange utterance of it the day previous.
“Yes, it is all here. Enough at any rate to allow us to act, I think, though I wish I had access to my books at the temple.” Biorkis sighed sadly.
“And I my own at the cottage,” agreed Durwin. “Still, I have read them enough to know them from memory, I daresay.”
“Are we to understand,” said Quentin, indicating Toli and himself, “that you believe this . . . Prophecy of the Priest King, or whatever— this has something to do with us?”
“Not us, Sire,” said Biorkis blithely. “You!”
Quentin had almost succeeded in putting off the feeling of awesome responsibility that went along with the thought that he might be chosen for some great task. He had almost settled into feeling his normal self again—almost, but not entirely. For the inexpressible notion that he was caught up in the swiftly running stream of history, that he was moved by an unseen hand toward an unknown destiny, and that all this had something to do with his vision of the flaming sword—this notion haunted him, lurking behind his thoughts like a shadow, or the lingering presence of a dream.
“There are many signs by which these things can be judged, as you well know,” the priest burbled on. “Let us just say that I have spent a day and a night in sifting through all that is known about the prophecy and the events surrounding it, and that I have no good reason to doubt that the signs point to you.”
“There are also very good reasons to believe that now is the time in which this prophecy will be fulfilled,” added Durwin.
Toli spoke up. “Though I have never heard of this prophecy—before it was spoken in the king’s chamber, that is—the Jher, too, have a legend that a king of the white race will arise who will usher in the age of light. He is to be called Lotheneil, the Waymaker. That is because he will lead men’s minds toward Whinoek, the God Most High.” Toli fixed Quentin with a knowing look and crossed his arms upon his chest, as if satisfied that the matter was settled.
“Do not think that I am unwilling,” said Quentin. “But you must show me how these things pertain to me. I know nothing of this prophecy—”
“And yet you quoted it word for word, or nearly. In the original it goes something like this: ‘Thee sword sceal byrnan with fyr flaume, Deorcin sceal dhy; deffetyn hit fleon winge falcho.’
“I would have been quite astounded if you had spoken it in the old tongue. Still, it was surprising enough. There are fewer than five men in all of Mensandor who know and can quote that obscure prophecy. That two of them should be in the same room together at an utterance—well, it is quite remarkable. Incredible.”
“I did not tell the whole prophecy, only part of it.” Quentin fidgeted in his high-backed chair, while Toli perched like a bird of prey beside him. “It might have been a coincidence.”
“Quentin,” Durwin reproached softly, “you know as well as I that for the servants of the Most High, there are no coincidences. And for a prophet to quote the merest portion of a prophecy is the same as to invoke the whole. The elders at Dekra should have given ample instruction in that.”
It was true; he had often heard and understood the elders to make reference to various events and happenings in the sacred texts, quoting portions of the text and implying the rest. He knew Durwin could see through any attempt on his part to distance himself from the events that were forming on all sides. It seemed to Quentin that a web of circumstances was weaving itself around him, pulling tighter and tighter. Soon he would be trapped by a destiny he had not foreseen and was not certain he could fulfill.
But he also felt that aside from his personal reluctance, which sat like a lintel stone upon his back, if what Biorkis and Durwin said was true, he had a responsibility to follow wherever the trail would lead. If he did have some part to play in saving the realm, he had to accept it and do whatever was required, aside from how he felt about it.
It was this other, more rational Quentin who answered.
“Very well. Let us see what you two rumormongers have schemed up for us. There seems to be no denying you.”
“You are beginning to think beyond yourself, eh, Quentin? That is good. Yes, very good.” Biorkis pulled on his long, white, braided beard. “Now, here is what I have found.”
The hours that followed had seemed but the flicker of a candle flame. A wink, a nod, and they were gone. From the moment his old teacher had begun to speak, Quentin was gripped in the spell of enchantment, transfixed by the unutterable mystery of the story of strange events, long forgotten, having passed from the minds and hearts of men long ages past. It was remembered only by a few learned men, and now it was revived in his presence. He listened intently, seizing every word as a thirsty man opening his parched throat to the sky to drink in the drops of rain.
They told of the sword, a sword unlike any other and possessed of a mysterious holy power; of secret mines beneath hidden mountains in half-remembered lands; and of the forging of the mighty weapon upon an anvil of gold. Biorkis and Durwin, their round faces flushed with the excitement of their tale, spoke of the ache of the people who for generation upon generation had waited, believing that they would see the coming of the sword and he who would carry it. They told of songs sung and prayers prayed in all the dark, hopeless times for the hand worthy to possess the sword to arise and deal deliverance at its point.
Zhaligkeer—that was the name the ancients had given the sword. The Shining One.
Quentin rolled the name on his tongue, knowing the name linked him to those who had lived and died waiting to see the sword. He wondered how many men had breathed that name in their hour of need; he wondered how many had despaired of ever seeing it and had given up hope and turned away.
When at last the story was told, Quentin rose to stretch and pace the room in quick, restless strides. “Are you suggesting that we just go and find this sword? That it lies hidden in some cave in the high Fiskills?”
Biorkis shook his head wearily. “Not find it; the sword does not exist. You must make it. Zhaligkeer must be forged of the hand that will wield it.”
Quentin sighed hopelessly. “I do not understand. Forgive me, what was all that about anvils of gold and secret mines and all? I thought that it was all part of the legend.”
“Oh, it is, it is,” said Durwin. “But it is our belief that the legends indicate the manner in which the sword must be made, not how it was made. I do not think that anyone ever actually made the sword.”
“Well, why not? It does not seem at all clear why they would hesitate. What was to stop them from trying?”
Durwin cocked his head to one side and smiled smugly. “Nothing and . . . everything. Undoubtedly, many tried. They applied the prophecy to themselves and their own times. But two things are needed for the sword to become Zhaligkeer, the Shining One: the one is from the secret mines, but the other is the hand of him whom the prophecy names. Even if they found the ore, which perhaps some of them by some means accomplished, they still lacked the thing that would make the sword Zhaligkeer: the hand of the chosen one. You see, it is not the blade alone but the hand of the Most High which endows the sword with its power.”
“If, as you say, men have long sought the Shining One, why have I not heard tell of it before now?”
“There is nothing unusual there, sir!” laughed Biorkis. “It is ever thus. In good days men think not of the hand that helps them. But when evil days come upon them, they cry out for the deliverer. In Mensandor, the years have brought prosperity and peace to the people as often as not. Men have forgotten much of the old times, when their fathers struggled in the land. They have forgotten the sword; but for a few the prophecy would have been lost completely.”
Quentin brushed his good hand through his hair. His eyes burned in his head. He was tired. The night was old, and he needed sleep.
“I know nothing of making swords. Neither do I know the way to the secret mines in the high wastelands of the Fiskills. And even if I already possessed such a sword, I do not know what I should do with it; I do not even have the arm to raise it.”
Durwin crossed the room and placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “You are tired; you should take your rest like Toli there.” Durwin nodded toward the Jher, who had curled himself up in an empty seat and was now sleeping soundly. “Go to bed now. We have talked enough for one night. We will talk again tomorrow. Believe me, there is much more to discuss before we set off.”
Quentin believed him. There were a thousand questions flapping around in his head, like blackbirds over a new-plowed field. But he was exhausted and could think of nothing but sleep.
“Does anyone else know about all this . . . this. . . .” Words failed him; he could think no more.
“No, not as yet—Ronsard and Theido know we will be busy while they are away. To Eskevar I have mentioned my suspicions regarding the events before us, but he knows nothing of the sword. No one beyond we four knows anything about what we have talked of this night.
“Good night, Quentin. Go and find your bed. We will talk again in the morning.”
As if on signal, Toli rose and slipped to the door to lead Quentin away. In a few moments Quentin felt himself sink deeply into bed, collapsing full-length upon it without even removing his clothes. To Quentin it seemed as if he had plunged into a warm, silent sea. He was asleep as the waves closed over him.
The next day was a blur of maps and scrolls—so dusty and brittle with age, one scarcely dared breathe on them—and dizzying conversation. Toli, sensing that the time for riding was drawing swiftly nearer, had begun selecting animals and provisions for the journey. Several times Quentin saw Durwin and Toli head-to-head in a corner as Toli checked some detail of his plan with Durwin.
Quentin wondered why he was not consulted about the preparations, but at the same time he was glad to not have to think about them. His mind had more than enough with which to occupy itself; his head fairly throbbed with the things he was taking in. Also, he missed Bria. He had not seen her but for fleeting moments over hurried meals.
He could tell that she knew he was going away soon. Her silent gazes, her bittersweet smiles and furtive gestures told him she knew. But she did not mention it to him; she did not cling. It was a mark of her high character that she, as much as was humanly possible, put her own feelings aside and tried to make his last days at the castle easier. And Quentin loved her for it.
When he finally mustered enough courage to face breaking the awful announcement of their departure, Bria placed her fingers to his lips, saying, “Do not say it. I know you must leave me now. I knew that from the moment I saw you emerge from the council chamber. You have much to do, great deeds to perform, and I will not bind your heart with promises.
“Go, my love. And when you return, you will find me waiting at the gate. The women of my kindred are accustomed to waiting. Do not worry after me, my darling. I will pass the time the better knowing your mind is settled.”
Despite his broken arm, Quentin hugged her to him for a long time, wondering whether he would ever see her again.
In the haste which overtook them, there was little time for brooding or sadness—that would come later; there was simply too much to be done. In two days they accomplished what would normally have taken a week.
Long hours were spent in consultation with the king. Their plan had won his approval outright, although not without certain misgivings. With the hills and countryside become harborage for the Ningaal—no one knew precisely where they were—Eskevar was loath to allow the party to leave without an armed escort.
They at last convinced him that such would only make their errand more difficult. It would be better to pass unheralded through the world and unencumbered by the chores of moving many men and horses overland in secret.
Quentin, Toli, and Durwin went. Biorkis, too old to withstand the rigors of such a journey, stayed behind in Askelon to give aid and counsel where he could. If battle drew near, he would be needed to attend as physician to any wounded. Also in Durwin’s mind, though he did not voice it aloud to anyone, was his apprehension that Eskevar, not wholly recovered from his mysterious malady, would require competent care in his absence. Were it not for that, Durwin would have taken his leave of the castle with a lighter heart.
The dark, cool pathways of Pelgrin, overhung with leafy boughs that blotted out all but the most determined of the sun’s rays, soothed Quentin’s mind as he rode along. His sorrow gradually left him, and he became filled with the excitement of the quest. Though it was still hard for him to accept the fact that he seemed to have a central part in it— he felt the same old Quentin, after all—he allowed himself to linger long in a kind of rapture over the tale of the mighty Zhaligkeer, the Sword of Holy Fire.