This makes the task of getting here worth every step,” said Quentin. He sat on a grassy knoll, dangling his bare feet in the cold, clean water of Shennydd Vellyn. “This is a most fitting reward.” He felt the weariness of the harsh trail and the fatigue of the seemingly endless days in the saddle, and then lastly on foot leading the horses, drift away in the soothing water. He felt revived.
“So it is! But we have not yet found the mines, though I believe we are at least at a place to begin looking.” The hermit was bent once more over his maps and scribbles, searching for a clue to a sign that might spark the discovery.
Toli strode up, buoyant and brimming with good cheer, fairly intoxicated with the beauty around him. “I have set the horses free to graze. Look at them run!”
Indeed, the horses were gamboling like colts in the balmy air of the great bowl of a valley. They galloped and bucked and pranced over soft, thick turf as green as the first delicate blades of spring.
“We shall have a time of it trying to catch them again,” mumbled Inchkeith. Quentin and Toli looked at each other. He had been mumbling darkly ever since they discovered the enchanted valley. While their spirits had risen on wings of joy, his seemed to have fallen lower by equal degrees. He was now quite sour.
“Do not worry on it, Master Inchkeith. They will come running to Toli’s whistle without fail. He has a power over them; you will see.” Inchkeith said nothing, turning his face away.
“Now then,” said Durwin. “Listen to me. Here is the riddle once more. Think, now!
‘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. ’
Durwin raised his eyes to meet blank stares all around. “Well,” he said, pursing his lips in a frown. “As I thought. It is not so simple now, is it? Now the time has come to solve the mystery—”
“Past time, if you ask me!” said Inchkeith sharply. “It is folly to roam these wasted rocks, chasing a dream. Look at us! We are up here babbling like children over riddles and nonsense. Down there”—his hand flung wide in a gesture of anger and frustration—“down there men are dying. The blood of good men runs hot upon the ground while we potter among the clouds.”
Quentin’s brow wrinkled, and his eyes narrowed as he silently listened, somewhat shocked by the armorer’s denunciation of their quest.
At last Durwin spoke, breaking the silence that had fallen over them with Inchkeith’s rancorous outburst. “Could we serve them better by taking up swords and throwing ourselves into the fight? Would our blades matter very much, do you think?”
“Does this matter? Riddle guessing! Breaking our bones over these accursed rocks! And all for a dream.”
“I thought you were with us, Inchkeith,” put in Quentin. “I thought you believed as we did in the importance of our journey. You did! I know you did!”
“Maybe I did once. But I have had time to think. It was a mistake to come here; I do not belong here. I should be back at my forge and anvil. There is a war on, by the gods!”
Then Durwin, speaking softly as to a child, said a surprising thing. “Do not be afraid, Inchkeith. To others it is appointed to fight, and, yes, to die. To us it is appointed to find the sword and bring it to the king. And if there is even the slightest chance that the sword will be the Zhaligkeer, I believe our efforts could not be better spent than in searching for it, though the whole world wade in blood.”
Do not be afraid.
The words struck deep into Quentin’s heart. Yes, that was it. Inchkeith was afraid of failing, or never finding the lost mines. Perhaps he was even more afraid of succeeding, and forging the legend-bound sword, afraid of believing the prophecy could come true. Better for him not to put it to the test. And this was the way of Quentin’s heart, as well.
Quentin, at first swept up in the excitement of great deeds and the promise of glory, had with growing reluctance come to view the enterprise as possessing little merit insofar as he himself was concerned. It was one thing to dream about being the long-awaited priest king, but quite another to actually set off in search of the means to make that dream reality. The aura of mystic fantasy had evaporated on the trail in the howling of the wind and in sleepless nights on the cold, barren rock under the glare of distant, unfriendly stars. And with every step that led him closer to the promise, he had grown more afraid.
Do not be afraid.
Although the words had been meant for Inchkeith, they stirred in Quentin a peculiar swirl of emotions. He wanted all at once to scream at Durwin. Why should I not be afraid? I have every good reason. I never asked to be this new king upon whose shoulders the world will rest. I never wanted it.
But Quentin said nothing. He turned his face away and looked out across the sparkling water of the Skylord’s Mirror.
That night they camped beside the lake, the white-topped peaks to the east glowing rosily across the green bowl, which was now immersed in shadows of deepest indigo. The Wolf Star burned fiercely in the sky and was reflected in the crystalline depths of Shennydd Vellyn.
Quentin sat alone—silent, brooding. He stirred only when the light tread of Durwin’s feet signaled the hermit’s presence. “So it is!” said the hermit, his voice seeming to resonate the water. “You have come to it at last.”
Quentin regarded him with a questioning glare. Durwin, gathering his robes, squatted down beside him. “You have come to that dark and narrow place through which every servant of the Most High must pass.”
Quentin flipped a pebble into the lake. “I do not know what I have come to.”
“Oh, I think you know very well. And that is what is bothering you. It has been gnawing at you ever since we left Askelon. It was worrying you that night at Inchkeith’s. I saw it then most clearly. I even spoke to you of it, but you evaded my question.”
“Is it not possible that we may all be wrong about this prophecy? If you ask me, I am not the one. And if I were, would I not know it somehow?”
“Yes, perhaps we are mistaken. It is possible we have misread the signs. But whether you are the one or not does not matter very much.”
Quentin cocked his head sharply; he had not expected the hermit to say that. “No,” Durwin continued. “What does matter is whether you are willing to follow the Most High, even in your unbelief.”
“I—I do not know what you mean.”
“Certainly you do. All your life you have served the gods in one way or another. Of the old gods you soon learned only to demand those things which they were capable of providing—an insignificant sign or two, a small favor vaguely asked. Then you met Whist Orren, the Most High God, the One True God of All. You have served him faithfully these many years and have learned much about his ways. But now is the first time you have ever really had to trust in him, to place yourself totally in his will, and you are afraid.”
Quentin started to object, but Durwin held up his hands. “Yes, afraid. You must now put your faith to the test. And such a test! With lost mines and flaming swords and prophecies fulfilled.”
“Why should I fear that?”
“The reason is not so hard to guess. It is the same with every man. You fear testing your faith, because it means testing the Most High. Deep in your heart you fear he will fail. If he fails, you are utterly alone in this life and beyond; there is nothing you can believe in anymore.”
Quentin shook his head. “No, Durwin. That is not my fear.”
“Tell me, then.”
Quentin drew a deep breath, glanced at the hermit and then quickly away again. “I am afraid of being the priest king. I cannot say why, but the mere mention of swords and mines fills me with dread. Look at my arm! How can I wield the Shining One with an arm as dead as firewood?”
“It is the same thing in the end, is it not? You fear to accept something the Most High has chosen for you.”
“How is that the same thing?”
“Most assuredly it is. To accept the crown of priest king would mean placing your trust totally in the Most High. It means that you must trust him to know what is best for you, to know you better than you know yourself. It would mean trusting him beyond all trust, even when the way is unclear—especially when the way is unclear.
“When you trust like that, you necessarily test the god’s ability to keep you. You are—we all are—unwilling to make such demands of our gods. If we trust but little, we will be disappointed but little, eh?”
“If I do not believe, but follow anyway, does that not mock the Most High and defeat his will?”
“On the contrary, my friend. To follow without seeing the end— in unbelief, as you say—is really the highest form of trust.”
“It is but blind trust,” objected Quentin. The words of the hermit made sense to him, but he still felt as if he must fight acceptance.
“Not blind trust. Not at all. Those who trust the powerless gods of earth and sky—they trust blindly.
“Quentin, look at me,” the hermit commanded gently. “You cannot serve the Most High without trusting him totally, for there always comes a time when he will put you to the test. He will have all of you or nothing at all. There can be no middle ground. It is a demand that he makes of his followers.”
Both men were quiet for a moment. The great bowl of the valley had deepened into violet dusk. The western peaks still had the faint glimmer of flame at their summits, but that, too, was dying fast.
“Look at it this way,” said Durwin. “Why should you be afraid to test the Most High? He invites it! You see your injured arm as proof against his will. Cannot the one who created the bones also heal them? And if he chooses to raise an orphan acolyte to the crown of the realm, what is to stop him?”
Quentin smiled at the appellation. “You mean that I should go along with this strange business regardless of my own feelings about it.”
“Exactly. Do not seek to hide your doubts and fears, or mask them in any way. Give them to him. Let him take them. They are, after all, part of you.”
Quentin thought for a long time, and then said, “What did you mean earlier when you told Inchkeith not to be afraid?”
Durwin smiled. “More or less what I am telling you now. We must not fear for the Most High; he can take care of himself. We must only look to ourselves that we remain faithful to his call. I know it is much to think about in one piece. It has taken me years to understand these things, and I am asking you to comprehend them in but a few moments.
“Inchkeith does not know the Most High, but he is not an ignorant man. He still feels the fear of believing that something so good and so powerful can exist. And that, as I said before, is the place where most men turn aside.
“But if you go beyond your fears and doubts, and follow anyway— ah! Strange and wonderful things can happen. Yes, orphans can become kings, swords can sprout flames, and great enemies can be laid low at a stroke.”
Quentin did not hear when Durwin left him, so lost in thought was he. But upon looking up into the night sky, now alive with blazing stars, he knew he was alone. His thoughts roiled and swarmed inside him; and rather than soothing his troubled spirit, Durwin’s words had only served to increase the confusion—or so it seemed.
Quentin lay down and wrapped himself in his cloak to watch the glittering stars and to ponder the words of the hermit. He lay for a long time thinking and then slowly drifted into a troubled sleep. As he lay beside the glass-smooth Shennydd Vellyn, he dreamed a dream filled with things both strange and wonderful.