Eskevar paced his inner chamber with long, impatient strides. He held his hands clasped behind his back and cast his eyes to the floor. “The fools! The fools!” he said under his breath. “They will bring the kingdom down.”
He had been two days in his tower—pacing, worrying. He had eaten and slept little; and his features, now more lined and tightly drawn than ever, bore the effect of his distress. Often he had occasion to anguish over the stubbornness of his nobles, but now he saw clearly that the fate of the nation lay in their hands, and they seemed oblivious to the threat.
Once and again he lamented the power, or lack of it, that stayed his hand from more drastic action. In days of old he would have ordered his lords into battle with but a wave of his hand; they would have had to obey or lose their lands and privilege. In days older still, in the time of the first Dragon King, the kingdom had been ruled by the will of the all-powerful monarch; then there had been no lords to question the command of the king.
Ah, but before that had been the time of the northern kings, when each man, by the point of his sword, could become king in his own eyes, and the realm was divided into tiny territories of scratching, biting, self-important despots who swaggered about their principalities spoiling for a fight and a chance to increase their holdings through the overthrow of a neighboring monarch.
Then the kings of the north had united and formed an alliance, and had established order throughout much of the realm, for they had all acted in harmony and for the best interests of the realm, and no one dared to oppose them, for to deny one was to deny all, to bring war on one was to declare war on all. The petty kings of the south could not stand against them. Eventually, over many long years, the power had become consolidated in the north, and there it had stayed.
Eskevar turned these things over in his mind as he paced the length of his chamber or sat brooding in his great carven chair. He paused before his window, shutters drawn wide to the glorious summer day. He sighed, gazing out across the familiar landscape of green, rolling hills and the darker blue-green of forest. He saw the slow curve of the Herwydd flowing in a lazy silver arc away to the south, moving in its own unhurried time toward its own unchanging destination.
“The cares of kings and kingdoms are nothing to you, great river. Perhaps they are nothing at all.”
The messenger who knocked and entered the room behind him found him still standing at the window, staring far away. “Your Majesty, there are lords without who wish to speak with you.”
Eskevar seemed not to hear; so the page repeated his message. When at last the king turned to the perplexed youngster, his weary face bore a sad smile. “Allow them to enter my outer apartment. I will attend directly.”
They have arrived at a decision, Eskevar thought. What will it be?
Outside the rain fell steadily; the sound of its splattering in the courtyard was punctuated by the rumble of thunder marching across the heavens to do battle with the mountain peaks. Quentin imagined that the mountains were giants and the thunder the voice that they raised to him. They were calling him, taunting him to come and take from them their secret—if he dared.
It had been a long time since anyone had spoken. Toli was curled like a cat in a huge covered chair by the hearth. Durwin sat with hands folded across his stomach, head down. Quentin himself sat slumped in his chair with his chin in his palm. Only Inchkeith still seemed alert and active. He hunched forward with his hands clutching his long pipe, puffing a cloud of smoke around his head and glancing periodically at his guests.
“I will do it!” he said at last, leaping up. “By the god’s beard, I will do it!”
The suddenness of the outburst startled Quentin and brought Durwin’s head up with a snap.
“What?” Durwin shook his gray beard. “Oh, Inchkeith, you startled me. I must have dozed off a little. It has been a long day. Forgive me.”
“I have thought the matter out most carefully; be assured of that,” said the master armorer. “I will go with you to seek the lanthanil, and I will make the sword. How can I refuse, eh?” The misshapen craftsman smiled, and Quentin saw the relentless energy of the man burst from that smile.
“It is the opportunity of a lifetime—of many lifetimes. If you are right and the mines can be found, I would pay any sum to work with lanthanil. You offer me the craftsman’s greatest dream. Yes, by all the gods that may be, I will do it.”
“I knew we could count on you, Inchkeith. We will find the mines, I am certain. The prophecy is being fulfilled.” Durwin waved his hand toward Quentin.
“I care not for prophecy, nor whether Quentin here is this priest king you speak of. But I care that our realm is set upon by barbarians. By Orphe! That I do. And if this sword that I shall make can strike a blow against them, if it can turn the battle, then I will make a sword such as no man has ever seen. I will make the Zhaligkeer!”
Quentin listened to the two talking and said nothing. All evening he had listened, saying little. His restive mood was on him again, and this time he perceived its cause: his arm.
Durwin seemed to forget that Quentin, the one designated to play the most important part in raising a sword against the enemy, had a broken arm, and maybe worse. Secretly, Quentin suspected that it was worse, that his injured arm was more severely damaged than the broken bone. It had been a long time since he had felt any sensation in the arm at all; it seemed numb, dead.
He did not speak of his suspicion to anyone. Not even Durwin, on the night when his arm was reset and bound properly, knew that he felt nothing at all, for he had grimaced and moaned—mostly out of nervous fear—as if it had hurt him a great deal. There was something seriously wrong with his arm; he was forced to face it now when all the talk of swords and prophecy filled the night.
As he brooded upon this unhappy fact, the thought occurred to him that perhaps he was not the one after all—not the mighty priest king foretold in the legends. Perhaps the Most High had never intended for him to be the one; it was to be some other yet unknown.
Unexpectedly the thought sent a wave of relief through Quentin’s frame. Yes, of course, that was it. One could not very well wield the fabled sword without an arm to do so. The prophecy, if it were to remain true, pointed to another. Perhaps Eskevar was the one favored by the prophecy—he was king, after all. The old oracle’s prophecy had said that a king must wield the sword. That settled it.
When at last they arose to take themselves off to their beds, Durwin came near to Quentin and said, “You were very quiet this night, my young man. Why?”
“Do we not have enough to trouble us, Durwin?”
“Aye, more than enough. But I perceived this to be a vexation of a different sort.” Inchkeith approached them now with a light burning brightly in a finely made lamp. Durwin accepted it and said, “We will find our own way, good sir. Thank you. You need trouble yourself no further on our account.”
“The trouble, sir, is just beginning!” Inchkeith laughed. “But I chose long ago on whose side I will stand. Get your rest, gentlemen. I will be ready to join you on your journey in the morning.”
“So it is. We will leave as soon as possible, but not until we have dined once more at your excellent table.”
“It is a welcome change from Toli’s seeds and berries,” joked Quentin. “But we will not wish to linger overlong.”
“Strange, I have never known you to refuse a mouthful,” quipped Toli, who had woken up and now came to stand with them. “The rain will stop before morning, but the stream will rise through the night. I shall go out at daybreak to see if it is passable.”
“No need, sir. By morning the flood will have eased. It always does. Have no fear. We will start our journey dry tomorrow, at least. And do not trouble about your horses. I will have all in readiness tomorrow. My sons will see to it. Now, good night.”
Inchkeith, taking up the candle on the table, hobbled across the darkened hall, the sphere of light going before him like a guiding light.
“A most extraordinary man,” said Durwin.
“Most extraordinary,” agreed Quentin. And they all shuffled off to their beds, where they were enchanted into sleep by the distant sound of rain on the stones of Whitehall.