Where will we find the master armorer to help in forging the sword? I do not recall having mentioned that. Surely, you do not contemplate that we will undertake that task without guidance?” Quentin rested with his back against a mossy log in a green clearing deep in Pelgrin’s wooded heart. Toli was busily poking among the bundles of the pack ponies to assemble a bite for them to eat. They had been riding since sunrise, and this was the first time they had stopped.
“I have an idea where we may find someone suited to the task,” said Durwin. His hands were clasped behind his head, and his eyes were gazing skyward. “Does the name Inchkeith mean anything to you?”
“Inchkeith? Why, he is said to be the most skilled armorer who ever lived. He fashioned the armor for the first Dragon King, and it was he who designed Eskevar’s battle dress, which he wore in the war against Goliah. Everyone knows that name! But is he still alive?”
“Oh, very much alive, though you make him older than he really is. It was his father, Inchkeith the Red, who made the armor for the Dragon King, and for several kings before that. He is many long years in his grave.
“But his son has continued the work begun by his father, and has increased the renown of the name. It is no wonder legends abound whenever men strap on greaves and gorget. The armor of Inchkeith is known as the finest made by human hands.”
Durwin smiled and winked at Quentin’s look of unalloyed amazement. “Well, what do you say? Will he do to make us a sword?”
“A slingshot fashioned by master Inchkeith would do as well. Of course he will do!”
They ate their meal and talked of the trail. Toli said little, and Quentin guessed his friend was concentrating upon reviving his dormant trailcraft—it had been a long time since the wily Jher had had an opportunity to practice the storied skills of his people. The little journeys back and forth from Askelon hardly counted, for there was a good road. But where they were going they would have need of his animal-like cunning, for there were no roads, no pathways, nor even trails. Man had not set foot in those high places in a thousand years.
Quentin was thinking on these things, realizing that just as he did not know how they would fashion the sword, he did not know exactly where they were going.
“These mines, Durwin—where are they? How will we find them?”
“I have brought along maps, such as they are, taken from the old scrolls. This is as good a time as any to show you. Here.” The hermit moved to one of the ponies and withdrew a long roll of leather.
“This is the way we shall go,” he said, unrolling the map. “It is very old, this map. And the land is much changed: rivers have slipped from their courses, and hills have worn away; forests have vanished, and cities have come and gone. But it shall serve to guide us nonetheless.”
Quentin fingered the skin on which the map was painted. “This does not appear as old as you say, Durwin. It looks as if it were made only yesterday.” “It was!” laughed Durwin. “We did not dare bring the original, or originals, I should say, for this map is made from scraps Biorkis and I have found over the years. The very age of the scraps made bringing them out of the question. They would have blown away on the first breath of breeze.
“No, this map was made by the combined resources of Biorkis and myself, and it is a better map for it. He had information which I did not. It is a lucky thing he came when he did. If he does nothing else, he has already helped greatly.”
“Durwin,” Quentin chuckled, “do you not know that where the servants of the Most High are concerned, there is no such thing as luck and coincidence?”
The hermit laughed and raised his hands before him. “So it is! Give me quarter! I submit. The pupil has instructed the master.”
“I am not always so dull,” Quentin said, looking again at the map, which seemed little more than a bare sketch. “Be it as you say, there is still precious little here to follow. I do not even see any mines indicated on it.”
“Very rough. But it is all we have—besides the riddle.”
“Riddle?” Toli spoke up. He stood over them, looking down at the map.
“Did I not tell you of the riddle? Oh? Well, I will tell you now. There was so much to do and so little time, I do not wonder that you feel ill equipped to begin this journey. I thought I had told you.
“The riddle goes like this:
‘Over tooth and under claw wend your way with care.
Where mountains sleep, sharp vigil keep; you shall see the way most clear.
When you hear laughter among the clouds and see a curtain made of glass
Take no care for hand nor hair, or you shall surely never pass.
Part the curtain, divide the thunder, and seek the narrow way;
Give day for night and withhold the light
And you have won the day.’
“It sounds simple enough,” said Quentin. “Where did you find it?”
“That we shall see. I am certain that it will seem more than difficult enough when the time comes to unravel its meaning. As to where I found it, you should know that already.”
“At Dekra. That is where I discovered most of what little I know of this affair. Yeseph himself translated it for me.”
“He never told me about it.”
“Why should he? It was years ago, and I was a pestering young man digging through his library like a mole. I chanced upon the riddle in a book which made mention of the mines of the Ariga.”
“Those are the mines we seek?”
Durwin nodded. “You see, the blade is to be made of lanthanil.”
“The stone which glows,” said Toli. “My people have heard of it. It is said that of old the Ariga gave gifts of glowing stones to the Jher for their friendship in the time of the white death. Whoever touched the stone was healed and made whole. They were called Khoen Navish—the Healing Stones.”
“Yes, that, at least, I have heard of, too. But I assumed that like much of the lore of the Ariga, the lanthanil had passed from this earth.”
“I think not, though we shall see,” Durwin said. “The Most High will show us aright. We must remember that it is he who guides us to his own purpose. We need not fret ourselves overmuch about the things we cannot foresee. The things we see too well will require our utmost attention, I have no doubt.”
Theido and Ronsard, with a force of three hundred mounted knights behind them, rode southward as far as their coursers could take them. They wanted to reach their rendezvous with Lord Wertwin on the third day and then undertake to engage the enemy before he had a chance to travel very much farther and strengthen himself on the spoils of Mensandor.
At midday on the third day, they reached the prearranged place of meeting. The knights dismounted and walked the wide greensward while they waited for Wertwin’s army to arrive. Squires in attendance watered the horses and saw to their masters’ armor; some polished breastplates and repainted devices erased by use, others set up their sharpening stones to hone blades long unused, and the smiths at their wagons pounded out dents in helm and brassard upon their anvils.
The day was filled with the clatter of an army looking to its armament. Theido and Ronsard had withdrawn under a shady branch to await their comrade. Ronsard dozed, and Theido paced while the afternoon came on in full.
“He has not come yet?” asked a sleepy Ronsard as he rose to his feet, stretching.
“No, and I am beginning to wonder if we should send a scout ahead to see what may have become of him. He should have been here waiting for us. Instead it is we who wait for him, and he shows not.”
“I will send Tarkio ahead a little and see if we can discover what has become of our tardy friend. Perhaps it is nothing. You know it is no small task to mobilize a force of knights in a single day. He may have made a late start.”
“Let us hope that is what has happened,” said Theido. He did not mention the other explanation that came to his mind. Both of them knew what it was, and neither wanted to hear or believe it.
Ronsard sent a squire to fetch the knight, and they waited for the courier to ready himself. “Be easy, Theido. You are wearing a path in the grass. See here, your pacing has bared the earth.”
“I like this less and less, Ronsard. I do. Something has happened. I feel it here.” He smacked his fist against his stomach.
Ronsard stared at his dark friend as Theido continued. “Your instincts in the ways of battle are ever keen. You must feel it, too.” Theido paused and stared, his gaze almost fierce with impatience. “Well?”
Before Ronsard could answer, they heard a battle horn sound in the wood; it seemed to surround them as it blasted a note of alarm. They turned and looked out across the greensward and saw a knight on a charger come crashing out of the wood. They watched as one of their own apprehended the man; there was a wild waving of arms, and then the knight looked toward them and spurred his mount forward. In an instant he was pounding toward the spot where Theido and Ronsard waited.
“Noble knights, brave sirs! I come from Lord Wertwin,” the breathless soldier said as he flung himself from his saddle. “We were on our way here and were joined by the enemy.” He gulped air; sweat ran down his neck and into his tunic. His armor was battered and dashed with blood.
“How far?” asked Ronsard.
“No more than a league, sir,” the knight wheezed.
“What was the disposition of the battle when you were sent to find us?”
The knight shook his head slowly; his face was grave. “There is little hope. The enemy is strong, and there are many of them. My lord was surrounded on three sides, his back to the lake that lies at the edge of the forest.”
“There is no time to lose!” shouted Ronsard. “Marshal, sound the trumpet! We move at once!” He dashed to his charger and began shouting orders to the men who had gathered around to see what the commotion foretold.
In three heartbeats the greensward was a confusion of knights buckling on armor and clamoring into their saddles. Out of chaos emerged a ready-mounted, fearsome host. Theido and Ronsard each took their places at the head of the column, and the army moved off at a gallop, leaving the armorers and squires to lead the wagons and follow along behind.
The clash of battle could be heard long before it was seen. The king’s forces dropped down the wooded slope into a broad, grassy bowl, which formed the higher end of the lake’s basin. Once below the level of the lower trees, they could see that the enemy had indeed surrounded Wertwin’s troops and were attempting to push them into the lake.
Theido and Ronsard ranged their army along the rim of the bowl and, when the knights were in position, sounded the attack. They came swooping down out of the wood and encompassed the field, driving straight into the thick of the enemy.
The startled Ningaal turned to meet this unexpected charge and found themselves blade to blade with a fresh foe. Ronsard half expected that the sight of the king’s knights descending in numbers upon them would send the horde scattering into the wood, where they could be driven to earth like cattle.
But the warlord Gurd’s men were seasoned to battle. They dug in and met the flying charge head-on. Many Ningaal lost their lives in that first surge. But dauntless and seemingly immune to fear, those who survived the onslaught merely stepped over the bodies of their comrades and fought on.
Theido forced a passage through to the shoreline of the lake and struck toward where Wertwin labored in the thick of the battle. When Theido reached him, the brave commander’s horse’s hind legs were in the water. Several valiant knights, having been unsaddled, had drowned along the strand in shallow water, unable to right themselves.
The fallen were everywhere. The blood of friend and foe alike stained the gray shingle a rusty red.
Ronsard led his contingent around to the rear to begin a pinching action upon the enemy caught between Theido’s forces and his own. By sheer force of weight—the knights being mounted, and the enemy on foot—Ronsard was able to join Theido in short order, successfully dividing the Ningaal into two isolated halves.
“We are outnumbered!” Ronsard called when he had driven to within earshot of his comrade.
“Our horses and armor will sway the balance!” Theido retorted.
The blades of the knights flashed in the sun; their shields bore the shock of fierce blows. On horseback the knights were almost invulnerable—living fortresses of steel—their beveled armor shedding all but the most direct strikes against them. On foot, however, the slow-moving, heavy-laden knights were disadvantaged by the lightly protected but more agile Ningaal.
The tide of battle ebbed and flowed for both sides. The clash of steel and cries of the wounded and dying filled the air, and carrion birds, having tasted blood on the wind, now soared overhead. With a mighty shout the Ningaal, at some unknown signal, suddenly rushed the mound that Theido and Ronsard had managed to gain. The tactic allowed them to rejoin the two halves that had been divided.
“We cannot hold them long,” said Ronsard through clenched teeth, his blade whistling around his head. “We must break through now, or we may be trapped against the lake once more.”
“Aye, well said. Have you any suggestions?” Theido grunted as he slashed and wheeled in his saddle, thrusting and thrusting again.
“A charge along the shoreline and then back into the woods!” shouted Ronsard.
“Retreat?” asked Wertwin. “I would rather fall with my men.”
“Let us say that we are moving the battle to more favorable ground,” cried Theido. “If we stay here much longer, we will be pushed into the lake once more. They are too strong for us!” He turned and shouted his order to the marshal, who obediently sounded the horn.
The knights of the Dragon King drew together and pushed along the shoreline of the clear blue lake; those scattered further afield disengaged themselves and followed in their wake. Several riderless horses joined the retreat, and knights on foot ran alongside, not to be left behind.
When they had reached the shelter of the wood, where the ground sloped upward, Ronsard halted and turned his men to face the foe once more. Theido’s and Wertwin’s knights streamed past and continued deeper into the wood. Ronsard called to his knights to be ready to dismount after meeting the first attack. He had decided in the close quarters of the wood it would be better for his men to fight on foot and use the higher ground to their advantage.
But the Ningaal did not follow them into the wood.
“What is this? They withdraw,” Ronsard cried in disbelief.
Instantly Theido was beside him. “I do not understand. It is hours to sunset, but they are leaving.”
“We will give chase!” cried Wertwin.
Ronsard cautioned against this, saying, “Let them go. Whatever moves them, I do not think it is fear of us. They were giving blade for blade down there. They are not fleeing. It may be a trap.”
“We could crush them!” objected Wertwin.
“No, sir!” said Theido. “A moment ago we were in difficulty to hold our own. That will not have changed because they choose to withdraw. Ronsard is right—they do not leave the battlefield out of weakness.”
Theido cast his gaze across the tufted field now bearing the bodies of the dead and dying. Upon the mound they had just left he saw a lone figure mounted on a sturdy black charger. The figure raised the visor of his plume-crested helm and turned his face to where Theido, Wertwin, and Ronsard stood at the edge of the wood. Then he lifted his sword with its cruel curved blade high above his head in salute.
“It is the warlord,” said Theido.
“He taunts us!” hissed Wertwin.
“It is a salute, perhaps. A warning,” said Ronsard grimly.
The warlord lowered his sword and turned aside to follow his army, now moving away along the opposite side of the lake, leaving the field to the birds and the moans of the wounded and dying.
“Send a party to bind our wounded and retrieve the armor of our fallen. We need not fear another attack today,” said Theido. “Then let us go back to camp and hold council. I would hear what Myrmior has to say about what has happened here today. He may have much to tell us.”