The cold wind whipping off the sharp snags of rock stung Quentin’s face, and the howl deafened him as it ravaged the bare peaks and screamed down into endless empty places. He kept his cloak turned up to cover his ears and wished that he had brought warmer clothing. Though only four days had passed since they had reached the elevations of the Fiskills, it now seemed ages since he had felt the warmth of the sun and seen the green of summer-filled hills. In every direction, wherever he turned his eyes, he saw the same thing: an infinite vista of jagged gray-and-white peaks jutting sharply against the blue sky.
Each day was much the same: cold and windy, without respite. At night they camped under a star-filled sky on ledges, in crevices and fissures out of the wind, but the rock was cold and hard. In the morning they awoke to the harsh, white light of a sun that shed no warmth upon the day—unless by chance they happened to find a spot hidden from the wind where they could stop and eat a bite before continuing. Then Quentin would feel a brief bit of warmth seep into him, tingling on his skin like dancing fire.
But those respites were rare and never long enough, for Durwin, sinking more and more into silence and a dour mood, pushed a merciless pace along the crag-bound trails. The party, at first so full of goodwill and high spirits, now dragged along dolefully, each one lost to himself and his own thoughts, their faces as gray and cheerless as the bare rock around them.
Quentin’s thoughts turned toward Theido and Ronsard and the battles he imagined they were waging far away. More than once he wished he could be there beside them, instead of floundering here, lost in a world of dull rock and white light and severe blue skies—as often as not clouded with gray, wispy clouds that shredded themselves on the tors and spilled a damp, chill drizzle to thoroughly quench any spark of hope that they would see the end of their seemingly endless journey.
At night he lay awake and watched the dread star bend its fearful beams through the thin air of high altitudes. It now filled its quadrant with light and was the brightest object in the sky at night, save the moon itself. Quentin even began to believe that the star would grow and grow to consume the world and set off the conflagration that would prepare the earth for the new age. These thoughts, and others like them, filled Quentin with a sense of hopelessness he had never known before. And as the search among the high rocks continued day after day, he began to think that doom was certain and that it was already too late to forestall the inevitable.
One morning Quentin was shaken out of his gloomy reverie by Toli, who had gone ahead to check on the trail, which threatened to narrow beyond the ability of the horses to maintain their footing.
He heard a shout, looked up, and saw Toli, red-faced with excitement and the exertion of running, flying down the rock-strewn path.
“Beautiful!” Toli shouted when he was within range. “Come and see it! A valley . . .” He puffed breathlessly. “It is wonderful! Come!”
Instantly Durwin’s face lit. “So it is! I believe we have found it at last!”
But Durwin was already toiling up the path behind Toli, who sprang lightly as a mountain goat over the flat slabs of rock, pointing and waving ecstatically.
Quentin turned to look at Inchkeith. “Well, a fair sight would be welcome to these burning eyes, I would reckon,” said the hunched armorer. “Even if it is not our journey’s end.”
“Then by all means let us view this sight!” grumbled Quentin. “It must be a fine valley indeed—Toli has not said that many words in as many days.”
Inchkeith turned, ignoring Quentin’s comment, and began scuttling over the rock, barely keeping Toli, now disappearing over the crest, in sight. Quentin marveled at the deformed armorer’s strength and agility; for in spite of his misshapen body and hobbling gait, Inchkeith somehow managed to grapple his way along the most unnerving passages.
Quentin glumly fell in and began trudging up the steep path, a narrow cut in the rock formed by a rivulet that carried away the spring melt. By the time he neared the top, none of the others were to be seen. He reached the summit and walked a few paces down the opposite slope before he thought to raise his eyes.
The sight before him so stunned Quentin, he sat down.
Across a vast and limitless gulf of silver mist, he saw an enormous bowl rimmed round with snowy peaks like white teeth. And the bowl, with gently curving sides, was a scintillating mountain green; all soft and mossy, the color of emeralds when struck by the sunlight. Carving through the center of the beautiful valley in graceful, sweeping undulation ran a river, gleaming like molten silver, filling the basin at the near end to form a lake shaped like a spearhead. The lake was deepest blue crystal and reflected the white-capped peaks rimming the fathomless blue sky above.
All this Quentin took in moments later. In his first, rapturous gaze, all he saw was the awesome splendor of the towering, frothing, magnificent falls that fed the river and formed the lake. “It is the Falls of Shennydd Vellyn,” Durwin told him later, “the Falls of the Skylord’s Mirror. The lake is the mirror, of course, and the Skylord is another name among the Ariga for—”
“Whist Orren. I know,” said Quentin in a voice lost in wonder. “I have heard of Shennydd Vellyn. But I never thought . . .”
“Yes,” said Toli quietly, as if he feared to break some spell of enchantment, “it is hard to believe that such beauty still exists in the world of men.”
“Harder still to believe that beyond these forsaken mountains men are fighting and dying,” said Inchkeith strangely. Of them all he seemed to be least affected by the sight before him.
All that was to come later; now, Quentin was overcome by the most dramatic vision of natural beauty he had ever seen. The falls plunged in three great leaps as they poured from some hidden crystal spring in the mountainside. This was the source of the silvery mist that floated over all like gossamer and charged the thin air with shimmering radiance as if rainbows hovered ever within reach.
Looking down upon it, Quentin could well believe that the Ariga had once sat where he sat and had seen it as he was seeing it. In that instant, he felt as if the immense barrier of time separating him from that happy time when the Ariga had walked the earth had been rolled aside. Inexplicably, the constant longing for a glimpse of that vanished time was suddenly stilled within his breast. Here it was at last, that which remained from of old unchanged.
The next thing Quentin knew, he was running down the precipitous grade toward the crystal lake, laughing and shouting with joy.
It was a tearful farewell with which Alinea sent Eskevar to meet the assembled armies of his lords. As much as she wanted to show him a brave front, she could not. In all her life as queen, she had never sent him off with tears in her eyes; no matter how much she might have cried for fear and loneliness later when he had gone, she did not want his last memory of her to be one of sorrow.
This time she could not contain her feelings. The tears welled up from her heart and overflowed down her cheeks, glistening in the morning light.
Eskevar, so used to the bold face his wife had always before maintained, seemed bewildered by what he considered a sudden change.
“My lady, do not be forlorn. I will return as soon as I can. It is nothing we have not faced before, my love.”
“I fear it is, my lord.” She dabbed at the corners of her emerald eyes with a bit of lace. The king took the handkerchief from her and poked it down inside his breastplate.
“I will keep this near my heart so that I will not forget the tears you shed in my absence. It will remind me to hurry here and dry your eyes as soon as I can.” He lifted a gauntleted hand to smooth her auburn hair and looked deeply into her eyes. “This will be the last time, Alinea. I promise you I will never leave you again.”
She looked at him, standing in the small courtyard of the inner ward just before the postern gate, and through her tears it seemed as if the years had been rolled back once more and the young Dragon King was looking down on her with brightly blazing eyes, eager to be off to defend his realm.
“Go, my lord. But do not say it is the last. For I know that you must be where harm threatens your kingdom. But go, and with no regret for me. Only promise that you will hasten back when your labors have restored peace to the land.”
When she had finished speaking, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. He held her stiffly, her soft flesh pressed against his steely armor. “Farewell, my queen.”
She turned and hurried away through the small arched door in the wall. Eskevar watched her go and then turned to the warder, who stood with averted eyes, holding the reins of his mount. The king ascended the three stone steps and swung himself into the saddle. The warder dashed to the ironclad gate and pushed it open. Outside, the armorer and the king’s squires were waiting.
Without a word the king led them through the postern gatehouse, over the plank and down the long, winding walled ramp that formed the rear approach to Askelon. They crossed the dry moat and rode out across the plain to meet the lords of Mensandor and their assembled armies where they stood amid pennons and glinting steel, waiting for their king.
“Yonder comes the Dragon King!” shouted Lord Rudd as he scanned the plain, eyes squinting in the sun. “Sound the call!”
A trumpeter raised the battle horn to his lips and blew a long, clear note. At once a shout went up. “The Dragon King! He is coming! The Dragon King rides with us!” The knights gathered on the plain rattled swords upon their shields in noisy salute and shouted with joy.
“It is good he comes,” said Lord Benniot, bending close to Rudd. “The rumors that he was dying had near taken the fighting heart out of my men.”
“And mine,” said Lord Fincher, riding up. “But now they will see that he does not hide in his tower, nor lie wasting abed. By the gods, it is good to see him astride a horse once more.”
The three nobles watched their king galloping toward them across the plain. Behind him his squires carried the billowing standard with the king’s unmistakable device: the terrible, twisting red dragon. On the crest of his helm he wore a crown of gold that shone in the sun like a band of light around his head.
Eskevar rode into the midst of his army to the cheers of all the knights and men-at-arms. Such was the clamor of his reception that it was some time before he could quiet them enough to make himself heard. But at last the army—more than two thousand in all—grew silent, waiting expectantly for what he would say.
“Loyal subjects, men of Mensandor!” More cheers. “Today we march to meet a great and deadly foe. Messages from those already engaged against the enemy indicate that he has reached the borders of Pelgrin Forest but ten leagues to the east.” Murmurs of shock and disbelief rippled through the throng. “In his wake the enemy has destroyed our towns and villages and has slain the innocent.” Cries of anger and revenge coursed through the crowd.
Eskevar looked out over the upturned faces of the host before him, many kneeling, their right hands clutching the hilts of their swords. He drew his own sword and raised it high.
“For Mensandor!” he called in a bold voice.
“For Mensandor!” came the clamorous reply.
“For honor! For glory!” the Dragon King cried.
“For king and kingdom!” the soldiers answered.
With his sword pointed to the east, Eskevar spurred his horse through the assembled armies. A way parted before him, bristling with raised swords and spears, and walled with shields and colorful snapping pennons. Along this panoply the Dragon King passed to the wild hurrahs of the soldiers. Behind him the way closed as the knights and footmen took up their weapons and followed their king into battle.