The snow lay deep and undisturbed beneath the silver light of a dawning sky. Overhead, a raven surveyed a silent landscape as its black wings feathered the cold, thin air. The bird’s rasping call was the only sound to be heard for miles, breaking the frozen solitude in irregular staccato. All around, the land lay asleep in the depths of winter.
Every bear, every fox, hare, and squirrel was warm in its rustic nest. Cattle and horses stood contented in their stalls, heads drooping in slumber or quietly munching the first of the day’s provender. In the country, smoke drifted from peasant huts into the windless sky from rough-hewn chimneys, sent aloft from hearth fires tended through the night. The village, clustered close about the mighty walls of Askelon Castle, slept in pristine splendor, a princess safe in the arms of her protector.
All through the land nothing moved, nothing stirred, save the raven wheeling slowly overhead.
Quentin lay shivering in his cell, a huddled ball topped by a thin woolen blanket that he clasped tightly around his ears in a resolute effort to keep out the night chill. He had been awake, and cold, long before the sullen sky showed its drab gray through the lone slit of a window high up in his cell. Now the gloom had receded sufficiently to make out the dim outlines of the simple objects that furnished his bare apartment.
Next to the straw pallet where he slept stood a sturdy oaken stool, made by the hand of a local peasant. A table of the same craft stood against the wall opposite his bed, containing his few personal articles: a clay bowl for his supper, a candle in a wooden holder, a small bell for his prayers, and a parchment scroll on which were written all the rules and observances of his acolyte’s office, which, after almost three years, Quentin was still struggling to memorize.
From somewhere in the inner recesses of the temple, the chime of a bell sounded. Quentin groaned, then jumped up in bed, pulling the blanket around his shoulders. Today was the day, he remembered. The day of great change. He wondered what it would be, for as closely as he had followed the portents he could not guess it.
All the omens had pointed to a change: the ring around the moon for three nights before the snow, the storm itself coming on his name day, a spider he’d seen busily constructing a web across his door (although that had been some time ago, he hadn’t forgotten).
There was no doubt—a change was forecast.
Its exact nature remained a mystery, but such was often the pleasure of the gods to leave part of the prophecy hidden. He had at last deduced the date of the change by a dream in which he had climbed a high mountain and then had leaped from its very pinnacle and sailed out into space, not falling but flying. Flying dreams were always lucky. His lucky day was always a holy day, and this day, the feast of Kamali—admittedly a minor holy day—was the first holy day to have fallen since his dream.
Today, without question, was the eventful day; the tokens were indisputable. Quentin reviewed them in his mind as he hurriedly threw his coarse, heavy acolyte’s robe over his head of close-cropped brown hair. He stuffed his feet into baggy stockings and laced the thongs of his sandals around them tightly. Then, grabbing his prayer bell, he dashed out of the cubicle and into the dark, chilly corridor beyond.
Quentin was halfway down the high-arched passageway when another bell sounded. A deep, resonant peal rang out in three short intervals. A brief pause. And then three again. Quentin puzzled over the meaning of this bell; he had not heard it before that he could remember.
Suddenly it came to him. Alarm!
He stopped, confused. As he turned to run toward the sound of the bell, he collided blindly with the round, fully padded form of Biorkis, one of the elder priests.
“Oof, lad!” cried the priest good-naturedly. “No need for panic.”
“That was the alarm bell just now!” cried Quentin, inching around the puffing priest. “We must hurry!”
“No need. The servants of Ariel do not run. Besides,” he added with a wink, “that was a summons bell. Not the alarm.” Quentin suddenly felt very foolish. He felt his face coloring. His eyes sought the stone flagging at his feet. The jovial priest placed a heavy arm on Quentin’s young shoulders. “Come, we will see what drags us from our warm slumbers so early on this chilly morning.”
The two moved off down the corridor together and shortly came to the vast entrance hall of the temple. A cold, stinging wind was rushing through the huge open doors at the entrance. A priest in a scarlet cassock, one of the order of temple guards, was already pulling the giant wooden doors closed. Three other priests stood round a large, shapeless bundle lying at their feet on the floor. Whatever it was, the dark bundle, uncertain in the dim morning light, had been recently dragged in from the outdoors—a trail of snow attested to the fact, as did the snow-encrusted bundle itself.
Closer, Quentin saw the bundle was that of a human form wrapped heavily against the cold. The priests were now bending over the inert shape, which to all appearances seemed dead. Biorkis placed a warning hand on Quentin’s arm and stepped slowly forward.
“What is this, good brothers? A wayward pilgrim early to the shrine?”
“This is no pilgrim by the look of him,” said the guard, rubbing his hands to restore the warmth. “More likely a beggar for our feast day torts.”
“Then he shall have them,” replied Biorkis.
“He is past nourishment,” observed Izash, the eldest priest of the temple, whose symbol of office was a long braided beard. “Or he very soon will be, I fear.” He tapped his sacred white rod and stirred the air in front of him, indicating that the man should be turned over, the better to see his face.
Two junior priests knelt over the lifeless form and gingerly tugged at the wider part of the bundle, which formed the man’s shoulders. The priests, overly careful not to defile themselves lest they should find themselves touching a dead body, ineffectually jerked at the corners of the rough fur skins the man wore for warmth. Biorkis watched the timid struggle with impatience, finally exploding, “Get out of the way! I’m not afraid of Azrael; my hands have touched worse!” He stooped over the body and rolled it into his arms.
Quentin, moving around the perimeter for a better look, gasped at the sight. The man’s face was ashen white, and his lips, pressed together in a thin line, were blue. He appeared completely frozen. But even as Quentin looked on fearfully, the man’s eyelids flickered. Biorkis, noticing the remnant of life, ordered one of the junior priests away. “Bring wine, brother. Hurry! And a vial of unction.” And to the rest he directed, “Here, now! Help me loosen his wraps. We may pull him back from Heoth yet.”
The priests fell upon the motionless figure, carefully unwrapping the layers of clothing. Their astonishment showed visibly in their faces when they had finished, and in the face of the priest who had just then returned with the wine and unguent.
There on the floor before them lay a knight in rude battle dress. His head was encased in a leather helm with crisscrossed bands of iron. His torso carried a breastplate of the same make and material, but studded with short spikes, and his forearms and shins were sheathed in studded guards.
Biorkis, still holding the man’s head, tugged at the strap fastening the helmet. It rolled free, clanking upon the stone floor, and a murmur went up from those surrounding. Quentin looked away. The knight’s head was a mass of blood. An open wound gaped just over his temple, where the skin and bone had been crushed by a sharp blow.
The kind priest knelt with the knight’s head on his knees and pushed the man’s matted hair from his forehead. He gently loosed the bindings of the breastplate, and two priests set it aside. A groan emerged from the man’s throat, shallow at first, then gaining in strength.
“The vial,” Biorkis ordered. Snatching it up and dipping two fingers into the salve, the priest smoothed the healing ointment upon the man’s face. Its aromatic vapors produced an immediate result, for the soldier’s eyes flickered again and then snapped open as those of a man struggling out of a dream.
“So, he is to be with us a little longer,” said Izash. “Give him some wine. He may tell us of his errand.” The old priest stepped closer and leaned low on his staff to hear better what might transpire.
Biorkis administered the wine as the knight, without strength enough to tilt his head, allowed the liquor to be poured down his throat. In Biorkis’s hands the wine seemed to have a magical effect. Color seeped slowly back into the man’s face, and his breathing now deepened where before there had been no discernible breath at all.
“Welcome, good soldier.” Izash addressed the knight respectfully. “If you feel like talking, perhaps you could tell us how you have come here and why.”
The fair-headed knight rolled his eyes and attempted to twist his head in the direction of the speaker. The effort brought a wave of pain that washed full across his features. He sank back into Biorkis’s lap.
By now other priests had gathered close about, drawn by the summons. They spoke in low voices with one another, speculating upon the strange visitor who lay before them. The knight opened his eyes again, and they shone bright and hard as if strength or will was returning. He opened his mouth to speak; his jaw worked the air, but no sound came forth.
“More wine,” Biorkis called. As the cup was handed to him, the plump priest tugged out a pouch from the folds of his robe. He dipped into the small leather bag and sprinkled a pinch of the contents into the drink. He then lowered the cup to the knight’s lips once more. The prostrate man drank more readily and, finishing, paused before attempting to speak again.
“Now, sir, enlighten an old busybody if you will. That is, if you have no reason to conceal your errand.” Izash inclined his old head; his white beard fell almost to the floor. A slight smile creased his lined face as if to coax the words forth with kindness.
“I am Ronsard,” the knight said, his voice cracking. Another sip of wine followed that exertion. His eyes, steel gray in the silver light, looked around at the tight circle of faces bent over him. “Where am I?” he asked quietly.
“You are among friends,” Biorkis told him. “This is the holy Temple of Ariel, and we are his priests. You may speak freely. No harm can reach you here.”
As if reassured by the soothing words, the knight licked his lips and said with as much strength as he could muster, “I am come from the king.”
The words were simple, but they struck the ears of the listeners like thunder. The king! He comes from the king! The murmur rose to echo from the high-vaulted arches of the temple.
Only Izash, still leaning on his rod, seemed unimpressed.
“Our king? Or someone else’s?” the elderly priest asked.
“King Eskevar,” the fallen knight answered with spirit.
The name sent another ripple through the gathered priests. The king had been absent so long, his name unheard among his own countrymen, that hearing it now brought hope to all gathered there.
“And what of the king?” the old priest continued. His probing had a method to it; he was occupying the knight, making him forget his wounds and the pain that twisted his rugged features.
“I cannot say more. The rest is for the queen alone.” The fighting man gulped air and licked his lips again. “I was waylaid last night— ambushed by outlaws who now sleep with the snow.”
The knight looked up at the faces of the priests bending over him. Fresh blood oozed from his wound, opened again by his exercise.
“Worry not,” said Biorkis soothingly. “You will remain with us until you are able to resume your errand.” He motioned to several of the younger priests to help him lift the soldier onto a pallet that had been brought. “No one will bother you for the details of your mission. Your secret is safe within these walls. Rest now. I do not like the look of that wound.”
“No!” the knight shouted hoarsely, his face contorted in agony. Then in a strange, rasping whisper, “I’m dying. You must deliver my message to the queen. It must not wait.”
Biorkis stooped with the knight’s head gently in his hands as the man was carefully transferred to the pallet. The knight clutched the wooden sides of the bed and raised himself up on his elbows. Blood ran freely down the side of his head and neck, staining his green tunic a dull, rusty gray.
“You must help me!” he demanded. “One of you must go in my stead to the queen.”With that he fell back in a swoon upon his bed. The color had run from his face. He appeared dead to those who looked on in fear and wonder.
The priests glanced from one to another helplessly. Biorkis stood, his hands dripping with the knight’s fresh blood. He searched the faces of his brothers and gauged the worry there. Then he stepped close to Izash, who motioned him aside.
“Here is an unwanted problem,” the old priest observed. “I see no help we can offer, save all that is in our power to heal his wounds and send him speedily on his way.”
“The delay—what of that?”
“It cannot be helped, I’m afraid.”
“Though we do all in our power to heal him, still he may die,” Biorkis objected. “He is as good as dead already.” Something in the knight’s voice, his look, spoke to Biorkis. The man had certainly overcome some crushing odds, and even now he refused his deathbed on the strength of the message alone. Whatever the tidings, this news of the king’s was of the highest importance. More important than life itself.
At that moment the knight regained consciousness. He was now too weakened to raise himself up, however. A low moan escaped his clenched teeth. “He is with us still,” said Izash. “How persistent the courier is.”
Biorkis and the old priest placed their heads close to the knight’s. “Good Ronsard,” Biorkis whispered. “Do not tax yourself further for your life’s sake. We possess some skill in healing and have often delivered a soul from Manes’s hands. Rest now. Let us tend your wounds and strengthen you to your purpose.”
“No!” the knight objected with surprising force. “There’s no time. One of you must ride to the queen.” His eyes implored the priest.
“Sir, you do not know what you ask,” Izash answered. He waved an arm to include the whole of the assembled priests. “We are under sacred vows and cannot leave the temple, except on pilgrimage or matters of the highest sacred import. The fate of nations, kings, and powers concerns us not at all. We serve only the god Ariel; we are his subjects alone.”
Biorkis looked sadly down upon the dying man. “He speaks the cold heart of the oath we have taken. My own heart says, ‘Go,’ but I cannot. For to leave the temple on this errand would mean breaking our sacred vows. Any priest who did that would forfeit his whole life’s work and his soul’s eternal happiness. There are none here who would risk that, nor would I ask it of them.”
The priests nodded solemnly in agreement. Some shrugged and turned away lest they be drafted to the task; others held out their hands in helpless supplication.
“Will not one of you match your life with mine? Will no one risk the displeasure of the god to save the king?” The knight’s challenge sounded loud in the ears of those around him, although he’d spoken in barely a whisper.
“I will go,” said a small, uncertain voice.
Biorkis, Izash, and the other priests turned toward the voice. There in the shadow of the arch stood the slight figure belonging to the voice. The figure stepped slowly forward to stand by the side of the dying knight.
“You, Quentin?” Biorkis asked in amazement; the others whispered behind their hands. “You would go?”