The rain-washed sky arched high above like a limitless blue dome. The air was cool and fresh, scented with balsam and pine and the damp of earth. The grass still sparkled with raindrops, glittering like diamonds in the early-morning light. The party had eaten a fine meal at Inchkeith’s table and had, thanks to the master armorer’s sons, set off without raising a hand—except to down goblets full of Camilla’s excellent mulled cider.
Quentin, well fed and rested, had quite forgotten his apprehension of the night before. He had convinced himself that his arm was better— and that it would surely fully heal. But he still could not see how he could be expected to wield a sword before his bones had knit. Thus the awesome prospect of his being the mysterious, legendary priest king seemed remote and almost ridiculous. In the dazzle of a brilliant new day, he felt ashamed and embarrassed for having had the audacity to presume himself to be in any way central to fulfilling the prophecy.
Of course, it had been a presumption fostered by Durwin, Biorkis, and, for all Quentin knew, Toli. But he had allowed them to lead him into thinking that the prophecy might indeed point to him. The whole thing was foolish, preposterous. Quentin could see that now. He told himself so, and he believed it.
The horses had clattered out of Whitehall’s courtyard at first light. Through the cleft in the ridge wall, golden rays of sunlight sliced the violet shadow of the canyon like a blade. It appeared to Quentin as they rode through the gatehouse and out onto the broad meadow, their horses cantering in high spirits, that they moved upon a trail of light all golden and green and shimmering. Everything that came into view, every tree and rock and mountain peak, seemed clean and new and vibrant with life. It was as if the world had been created anew during the night, and the old world had been cast off as a pale, pathetic parody of the true thing. Quentin imagined that he was seeing it all for the first time and that this was how it had looked when the world was young.
He heard a strange whoop behind him and turned to see Durwin’s face radiant in the golden light, mouth open and head thrown back, laughing. And then suddenly he was laughing too. Toli started singing, leading them all in a song which he called “Pella Olia Scear” or “Song of the Morning Star.”
They sang, and their voices soared up the sheer rock face of the ridge wall and fell whispering back. Beside them, as they neared the cleft, the rock stream cascaded with renewed vigor, leaping over its stony bed and splashing fire gems into the air. The stream, called Rockrace by Inchkeith, spread out like a road of flowing silver as it rushed to meet the day. They followed Rockrace for a long time among the fragrant firs, and then, as the sun mounted higher, crossed it and headed toward the Fiskills’ barren foothills.
“How far from here are the lost mines?” asked Quentin after they had ridden for some time in silence. Durwin rode just ahead; he cast a backward look over his shoulder and laughed. “If anyone knew that, my friend, there would be no need of going. The lanthanil would be long gone by now.”
“You know what I mean, you old sorcerer!” shouted Quentin back.
“So it is! How impatient you are. I think that before ten suns have set, we will look upon the entrance to the lost mines of the Ariga. That is, if the mountains are not greatly altered since those maps were made. Just the same, it will be no easy task to find them.”
“We have the riddle,” reminded Quentin.
“Yes, there is that. But you know as well as I that riddles are meant to conceal as much as they reveal. We will have a time of it, I think. The Most High will have to show us very plainly.”
Inchkeith had been listening and now turned toward them and said, “You know, Durwin, the first time we met, you were gabbling about these lost mines of yours. You were full of questions about the lanthanil; you wanted to know if I had ever seen it or worked with it. Do you remember?”
“I remember it well. And I also remember your answer, though you may not. You looked at me with the greatest pity and said, ‘If I had ever touched the metal of the gods, do you think I would still wear the cloak of a hunchback?’
“Mine was a foolish question, I admit. But you must remember I had only discovered the existence of lanthanil and knew nothing of its full properties.”
Inchkeith smiled strangely. “Craftsmen like myself have our own tales of lanthanil, though how much truth is in them I cannot tell.”
“I have on rare occasions heard the elders speak of lanthanil,” said Quentin. “To the Ariga, it was prized more highly than gold or silver. The craftsmen who worked it were almost treated as priests. But I never heard it referred to as a healing agent.”
“Khoen Navish,” Toli reminded him. Quentin turned to see that Toli had dropped back and was now riding beside him, intent upon the conversation.
“Yes, the Healing Stones.”
Durwin looked quizzical and said, “Can you not guess the answer?” Quentin frowned and thought and at last shrugged. “Well, think a moment,” replied the hermit. “The Ariga had no need of healing from any ailment. They lived in perfect health and never fell to disease, and none were ever reported to have been injured in any way. Healing is not mentioned as a property of the stone, although they probably knew about it if Toli’s story is true. Its healing properties were seldom mentioned because they had no need of it themselves.
“As for the craftsmen being priests, they were—of a sort. The Ariga craftsmen were skilled in every art; they were poets, you might say. They worked in metal, wood, and stone as our poets work with words. And to the Ariga it was reckoned as almost the same thing. I say ‘almost’ because the Ariga rejoiced in a thing well made, for even in the smallest utensils of everyday life, they saw the face of the Most High. So craftsmen were priests in that they allowed the people to see something of their god in the objects around them. And they were greatly respected.”
No more was spoken for a long time. Quentin rode along and thought about Dekra and realized he missed his friends there; he wondered what they were doing and whether they missed him as well. He also wondered what Yeseph would say if he knew that his protégé was now embarked upon a quest for the lost mines of the Ariga. What would Yeseph say if he knew Quentin was to play a role in the forging of the Zhaligkeer?
Eskevar slouched in his thronelike chair. His gaunt visage showed his displeasure quite openly. The lords of Mensandor, now gathered before him, clenched their fists at their sides and scowled determinedly.
“What of the others, my lords?” asked Eskevar, making no attempt to moderate the malice in his voice. “Do they propose to sit round in the field and join in the slaughter with whichever side carries the day?”
“We know not what other lords propose to do, Sire,” said Lord Benniot in measured tones. “But we have come to offer you our swords and those of our knights. We will ride with the Dragon King.”
“To the death, if need be,” added Lord Rudd. “By Azrael, I will not see my king do battle alone while I have a blade beside me. My men are yours, Sire.”
“And mine!” said another. The others declared their loyalty also.
“Well done, my lords,” said Eskevar at last. Though he did well appreciate the decision of these, his loyal nobles, the king was enflamed against those—a sizeable party led by Ameronis and Lupollen—who had, after two days of heated contention, remained unmoved in their decision to withhold support for what they considered the king’s war.
“We will go at once to muster and arm our troops. We will march as soon as we can.” Lord Fincher placed his hand to the hilt of his short sword as he spoke. “It will be a pleasure to ride beside the Dragon King again.”
“It will be no pleasure, my lords. Make no mistake!” said Eskevar slowly and carefully. “I believe this will be the utmost test of our might and endurance. If we fail, the world will grow dark. Freedom will die.”
“Then let us fly, Your Majesty. We will return in three days,” said Lord Rudd. “And we will march out with you to meet Theido and Ronsard and Wertwin’s men in the field.”
“Yes, fly at once. And remember, my lords, spare nothing. If we fail, there will be nothing left worth claiming in the end. I will speak again to the others to see if my words may yet prevail upon them to change their decision. We will need every strong arm before this war is over, I fear.
“Be on your way. I will await you here, ready to march at once.”
There was a rustle of fine brocaded clothing as the nobles bowed as one and went out, each to ride with his train to his lands and there to prepare for war.
When they had gone, Eskevar called for Oswald and said, “Fetch me the armorer. I will speak with him at once.”
Oswald appeared doubtful and frowned deeply, his old features crinkling up into a web of lines and creases.
“Do not look at me so! Fetch me the armorer at once, I say!”
Without reply the chamberlain bowed and went out. In a little while there was knock on the king’s chamber door. Oswald came in, followed by a swarthy man with muscles that bulged and rippled as he moved.
“Tilbert, Sire.” Oswald presented the man and left without looking at the king.
“Tilbert,” the king said. The man nodded and remained at attention, his face stern and alert. “Ready my armor and my weapons. I will need both soon—within three days. Ready yourself and any tools you think best; you will be needing them.”
At that moment the chamber door swung open without a knock, and Queen Alinea came into the room. Tilbert bowed to the queen.
“My lord,” said the queen with a curtsy. She was slightly out of breath. “Why is this man here?” She indicated Tilbert, who looked puzzled.
“I am speaking with him.”
“And about what I can guess. My husband, certainly you do not entertain any false notions of going into battle.”
The king moved to dismiss Tilbert with a quick wave of his hand. The armorer bowed from the waist and started out.
“Wait!” said the queen. She turned once more to the king and fixed him with a smoldering stare. “Durwin is gone and so you think that you may now do as you please, is that it? You are still very weak, Eskevar. Think of your health.”
“You may go now, Tilbert,” said Eskevar. The man left the chamber quietly. Alinea crossed to the king’s chair and fell to her knees beside Eskevar, seizing his right hand in both of hers.
“I pray you, my king. Do not go! It will be the death of you!”
Eskevar scowled furiously at his wife; her actions offended him. “The rascal Oswald told you.”
“What does it matter? My darling, you are just up from your sickbed, and you have not your full strength. Wait at least until you feel stronger.”
Eskevar put a hand to her lovely head and laced his fingers in her hair. “My lady, I would that I could stay. But I cannot, nor can I wait one day longer than it takes to assemble an army to march.”
“But why? Let your lords serve you in this. Theido and Ronsard would tell you the same if they were here. They are on the field now; let them assume command.” The queen’s voice quivered on the edge of tears.
“It may not be,” he soothed. “The larger part of the council still opposes the call to arms that I have sounded. They are not convinced there is sufficient reason for them to march in war upon the whim of their raving monarch.
“Do you not see? They believe me ill and of troubled mind. They think I joust at shadows. I must go ahead of my army and convince them I am fit to command and that my judgment is unimpaired. Maybe then they will join us. I pray they do before it is too late.”
“But is there no other way?” Tears ran freely down Alinea’s cheeks and fell in dark spatters upon her blue gown.
“I must go. It is the only hope we have,” the Dragon King said gently.
“Oh, my lord,” cried Alinea. “It is an evil day that takes you from me thus.”
“That it is, my queen. Most assuredly it is.”