Under their banners of blue and gold and scarlet in the council ring, the lords of Mensandor sat in their high-backed chairs. Eskevar glared down from this throne upon the dais, his thin, knotted hands clutching the armrests like claws.
“The foe does grow each day stronger. How long will you wait, my lords? How long? Until your castles are burning? Until the blood of your women and children runs red upon the earth?
“And to what purpose? Do you think that by hiding within your gates you may save your precious gold? I say that you will not! The enemy comes! He is drawing closer. The time to move is now!”
The Dragon King’s words rang with surprising force and vigor, coming as they did from a man who appeared only half of what he had been, so wasted was he by his illness. The gathered lords, now all accounted for—aside from Wertwin, who had made his decision and was with Theido and Ronsard—sat in silence. No one wished to be the first to go against the king.
“Do you doubt the need?” asked Eskevar in a softer tone. “I will tell you how I perceive the need: I have sent my personal bodyguard, my three hundred, to stand against the Ningaal. Lord Theido and the Lord High Marshal Ronsard lead them, and they are joined by Lord Wertwin and his standing army of a hundred.
“These are gallant men and brave; but there are not enough. We must send tenfold knights and men-at-arms to stand with them if the Ningaal are to be crushed and banished from our shores.”
Lord Ameronis, in a voice of calm reason, said, “That is precisely the point we would question further, Sire. This enemy . . . this Nin, whoever he is . . . we have heard nothing of him. How do we know that he is so strong and his numbers so great? It would seem to me that we would be more prudent to send a scouting force to ascertain these and other details before embarking upon all-out war with an imagined enemy of unknown strength.”
“How well you speak, Ameronis. I would imagine, as you have had ample time to compose your thoughts, that you are quite settled in your mind as to how you will go.” The king paused to let his sarcasm hit its mark.
“Lord Ameronis opposes the call to arms!” shouted Eskevar suddenly. “Who else will defy his king?”
Eskevar’s sudden unmasking of Ameronis’s subtle opposition shocked the assembly, and in that moment several of the lords who had agreed to join a coalition of nobles against raising and funding an army now wavered in their opinion. It was a dangerous thing to defy a king outright, especially one as powerful as Eskevar. It might not be worth the gold they would save in the end.
But Ameronis recovered neatly. “You misunderstood me, Sire. I do not oppose action where it is plainly necessary. When the time comes to stand upon the battle lines, I will be at the head of my knights and at your side.”
Lord Lupollen, Ameronis’s neighbor and friend, his closest ally in the council, spoke next. “If this enemy is as great as you say, Sire, would we not have heard of him before now? That is the puzzling thing.”
There was a murmur of assent at this question. Eskevar looked sharply at Lupollen and said, “You also I know, my lord. That your king has sent his own knights into battle should be proof enough for anyone loyal to the crown that the need exists. Why do you doubt your king?”
Eskevar stood in the silence that followed his remarks. He looked at each one of his lords in turn, as if he would remember the exact set of each chin and the expression upon each face.
“I have said all I can, lords of Mensandor. And I have allowed others to speak where I thought most advantageous.” He was speaking of Esme, who had again pled her request for help before the council earlier that day. “I have nothing more to say. It is up to you. If Mensandor is to survive, we must not tarry.”
He stepped down from the dais and moved out of the circle of the council chairs. He spread out his hands imploringly—hardly a characteristic gesture for the Dragon King, and it was not without effect.
“I leave it in your hands. Do not wait too long.”
He left the Council of War deep in hushed silence. No one dared speak until he was far away from the room, and then the arduous debate began: Ameronis and Lupollen and their friends in opposition; Benniot, Fincher, and several others just as strongly in favor of supporting the king’s call to arms.
The argument was bitter, loud, and long, lasting the length of the day. Eskevar returned to his apartment in the castle to brood darkly upon the stubborn blindness of his independent, self-sufficient lords.
With every league the foothills of the Fiskills marched closer, changing in color from misty violet to blue above the mottled green of the forested hills. The party had set out due east cross-country toward the lofty heart of the rugged mountain range. In this part of Mensandor the Fiskills seemed to rise sharply out of rolling hills gently sloping upward to their very feet. They were a wall, as Celbercor had intended them, a soaring fortress against all save the most foolish and determined. It was this fortress Quentin, Toli, and Durwin dared to assail.
Each day the land rose higher. Quentin fancied he could feel the wind freshen and the cool air of the mountain heights waft down to breathe upon them in unexpected moments. In the happy countryside, with its small, well-groomed villages, it became increasingly harder to believe the ominous events that had loomed so large when in Askelon. Even his own experiences in the camp of the Ningaal seemed as if they had happened to someone else and Quentin had merely heard about it. If not for his injured arm dangling from the sling, Quentin would scarcely have believed the tale.
Only at night did the sharp reminder prick him; it came in the form of the star, growing slightly larger night by night. It now seemed to outshine every other star in its quadrant. Hard and bright, it sent a corona of milky rays outward from its hot, white core. Everyone must see it now, thought Quentin, lying rolled in his cloak at night. Everyone must surely feel the evil it portends.
But by the morning’s light, the Wolf Star faded, as did all the other lesser lights of heaven. The spell of the glowing star was broken by the coming of dawn.
“How far before we come to Inchkeith’s abode?” asked Quentin as they made ready early one morning to get under way.
“No great distance, I think. If the trail permits,” Durwin replied, “we will sleep in feather beds tonight.”
“Are we close, then?” Quentin had no idea where the home of the legendary arms maker might be. But the rocky highlands they were now traversing did not strike him as the sort of place a master armorer would be found.
Durwin walked up the slope of the little hill where they had camped. Quentin followed, squinting as he moved out into the light of a crimson sunrise.
“Do you see that ridge of bare rock beyond the near valley?”
Quentin nodded. The ridge was a ragged gray wall that cast a black shadow across the green blanket of the pine-covered valley. “He lives beyond the ridge?”
“Not beyond it—within it!” laughed Durwin. “Or very nearly, as you shall see. Inchkeith is a strange man; he has many strange ways. But he is the man for us.”
“You know him, Durwin? You have never mentioned him in my hearing until most recently.” Quentin regarded his hermit friend with something approaching suspicion. Not that there was anything at all unlikely about Durwin’s being acquainted with such a man.
“There is much I do not mention in your hearing, my young man. Only half of what I know will fit in my head at any one time!” He winked and laughed, his voice booming in the clear morning.
Toli whistled from below. When they joined him, all was ready.
“If we are to sleep on feathers tonight instead of pine needles, we had better away. See how long the shadows grow already.” Toli’s dark eyes flashed with good humor. He was once more in his native element. Every day he seemed to slip more and more into the quiet enigma he had been when Quentin first met him years before. Give him back his deerskins and bone knife, thought Quentin, and he would be once more the Jher prince.
“You would prefer pine needles, I would wager, Toli. But lead on! The day, as you say, is speeding from us!” Quentin, with difficulty but unaided, swung himself up into Blazer’s saddle and turned his face to the warmth of the rising sun.
Toward midday, towering banks of clouds sweeping down from the north in a long line, gray as smoke beneath and white as new-bleached wool above, rolled high above them. The churning mass swelled and billowed, spreading a great flat anvil at its soaring crest as the fierce upper winds took the bank and flattened it.
“There will be rain soon,” said Toli.
“Do you think it will hold off until we have reached our destination?”
“Possibly,” replied Toli, squinting his eyes into the sky. “But the air is already growing cooler. Thunder whispers on the wing. The rain may hold and it may not.”
Quentin could hear no thunder, but since Toli had mentioned it, he did seem to notice that the feathery breeze lifting the leaves in the trees around them now bore a cooler touch.
“Then let us not tempt it further by stopping to wag the chin!” cried Durwin. “Let us ride dry while we still may. A hot supper will make up for a meal missed on the trail.”
“I am for it!” called Quentin. “Let’s away!”
Durwin urged his brown palfrey forward, followed by Toli with the two pack horses; Quentin brought up the rear and kept a wary eye on the gathering clouds overhead. They had made good time that morning, stopping only to refresh the water in their skins at a rushing brook in the heart of the valley. Every time Quentin chanced to look up, the great gray wall of rock, glimpsed as a looming rampart between the shaggy branches of pine, seemed to have advanced dramatically closer.
Presently Quentin heard the splash of a nearby stream as it tumbled over rock. The party left the sheltering pines and came to a wild and rocky channel carved out by a shallow river that bounced and frothed over black stones, round as loaves of bread. The tumbling water, for all its activity, rose barely to the horses’ fetlocks, but it was broad as a ward yard. Durwin struck along the loamy band and turned upstream parallel to the face of the ridge.
Standing pools of water along the bank mirrored the bulging blue-black clouds overhead. The wind had freshened, and Quentin could smell the musty earth scent of rain.
The stream angled along a sweeping bend lined with tall, finger-thin, long-needled pines that whispered in the rising wind. “The rain is on the way!” shouted Durwin.
“Our destination is not too much farther, I hope,” called Quentin as he came abreast. “Perhaps we should find shelter and wait until the first downpour has passed.”
“If I remember correctly, we have not far to travel. Look ahead.” The hermit pointed to the gray cliffs directly before them once more. “See where the water emerges from the base of the ridge wall? It is just ahead.”
“It appears a seamless wall,” said Quentin.
“You will see. You will see.”
“Unless we hurry, Inchkeith the armorer will greet three very soggy travelers,” remarked Toli. As he spoke, the first fat drops of rain began plunking into the pools around them and plopping onto the trail, where they raised tiny puffs of dust.
They spurred their mounts ahead with renewed vigor as the ripe droplets splattered around them and made dark splotches upon their clothing.
As they came nearer the place Durwin had pointed out, Quentin could see a fold in the ridge wall he had not noticed before. Where the stream emerged, the left face of the cliff angled away sharply as the right face overlapped it. From a distance it gave the eye the impression of a continuous, unseamed wall. Closer, it began to open to them as they followed the river to the vast stony feet of the rock face.
The ground rose slightly as it met the ridge; pine trees grew right up to the very face of the gray wall. The horses’ hooves clattered over a stone embankment, and then they were through the cliff and gazing on a breathtaking sight. Despite the raindrops pelting down around them, Quentin stopped to marvel at the vision before him. A vast, rolling meadow of rich mountain green spread out on either side of the stream, here narrower and more deep. Enclosing the meadow and towering above it on all sides rose smooth, flat walls of stone, now blue under the black sky. At the far end of the meadow, which Quentin adjudged to be fully a league wide and half a league long, stood an enormous house of white stone, glimmering like the white sails of a ship on an emerald sea.
“That is Inchkeith’s home,” said Durwin, “and we are just in time.”
A clap of thunder rolled across the ridge to echo its booming voice throughout the meadow. The long grass began to dip and rise like the waves of Gerfallon in the fitful wind.
They galloped out into the wonderful meadow, the rain, sharper now, stinging their cheeks. Quentin felt a thrill of excitement as lightning tore the sky in a jagged flash. The resounding roar filled the blue canyon and rumbled out across the valley behind them.
Inchkeith’s house was as large as a small castle, an impression strengthened by the single stately tower that served as entrance and gatehouse before a generous, stone-paved courtyard. Several smaller structures clustered close about the main house; these were also of the same white stone. The stream, running deep and quiet in its course through the meadow, formed a graceful waterfall as it spilled out over the sheer rock face behind the master armorer’s manor. At the farther end, where the water ran down into the meadow, a large wheel turned slowly in the swift current.
There was no one to be seen as the travelers pounded to a halt before the tower. A portcullis of finely wrought iron barred their way into the courtyard beyond.
“He keeps no gateman,” observed Durwin, “because he expects no travelers and has but few guests.”
The hermit slid down off his palfrey and strode to the archway. In a nook in the stone hung a knotted rope. Durwin grasped the rope and pulled twice very quickly. A bell pealed in the courtyard.
“That should bring someone running,” said Durwin. The rain was falling harder; in a few moments they would be soaked to the skin. Out across the meadow, back the way they had come, great white sheets of shimmering rain were wavering toward them, driven like sails before the wind. Water was pooling up around the horses’ feet and streaming down the walls of the manor.
“Who seeks admittance to my master’s house?” Quentin had not seen the slight young man dart out of a doorway across the courtyard. He held his cloak over his head and peered at them through the iron grillwork of the portcullis.
“Tell your master that Durwin the holy hermit of Pelgrin and his friends Quentin and Toli are here to see him on king’s business. Tell him we respectfully request the hospitality due travelers. And you had better tell him quickly, or we will be in a most unhappy disposition.” He wiped away the trickle of water sliding down the side of his nose.
The young man seemed to weigh a decision carefully. “You do not seem disposed to be unruly. Come in out of the rain while I fetch word to my master.” He disappeared into a recess beside the portcullis, and instantly the heavy iron gate began to lift, smoothly and without so much as a squeak or creak. It was obviously made with the utmost skill.
The damp travelers hurriedly stepped under the arch of the gatehouse to wait until the young servant returned. Quentin and Toli dismounted and stood dripping in the dark tunnel of the archway.
Quentin was struck by the spare simplicity of all he saw around him. Not a post nor a portal possessed an inch of ornamentation. Around the perimeter of the courtyard, not an item was out of place, and the yard itself was spotless. The edifice of Inchkeith’s manor house was all clean lines and square corners; clearly it had been erected with exacting care. Not a crack or crevice was to be seen anywhere.
To Quentin’s eye the effect was reminiscent of the architecture of Dekra, though not at all derivative of it. He was impressed with the clean appearance of all that met his eye; it spoke of a hand that left nothing undone, and a mind that saw to the smallest detail.
He heard a shout and saw the young servant waving to them from inside the arched entrance to the manor hall. They dashed across the corner of the courtyard and joined him under the sheltering portico. “Come along with me. Take no heed for your horses; I will send someone to care for them and bed them. My master asks that you join him at table in the great hall if you are so inclined.”
“Indeed we are!” Quentin fairly shouted. He was hungry, cold, and wet. A hot meal seemed like the most wonderful thing he could have dreamed at the moment. “Lead on!”
The skinny, long-boned young man led them along the short passage to the hall’s entrance, pushed open the ironbound wooden door, and ushered them in. The hall was ample and gracious, but marked with the same unadorned, almost severe style as the exterior. Quentin gazed around in admiration. Several servants were moving about in preparation for the meal. A single long table with benches along either side overlooked a wide and generous hearth in which a well-made fire burned cheerily. It spoke of a well-drafted chimney, for there was, Quentin noted with pleasure, not a trace of soot on the walls or ceiling of the hall anywhere. Everything was as clean as if it had never been used, and yet it was warm and homey.
The appearance of Lord (for so Quentin now considered him) Inchkeith’s abode drew a picture in Quentin’s mind of a stern and exacting personage of regal bearing, a man of quick temper and a will as strong as the iron gate at his door, a man of precise and flawless judgment, one who would never suffer imperfection or blemish lightly. A man of power, strength, and grace. A man of relentless, fervent perfection, obeyed by all around him with unspoken efficiency and unfailing courtesy.
“Durwin! You old mumblebeard!” a hearty voice boomed out behind them. “Welcome! Welcome, fair friends! Welcome to Whitehall!”
Quentin turned, expecting to see the man of his imaginings. The picture so carefully drawn in his mind collapsed utterly as Quentin, with a rude shock, beheld the lord of Whitehall.