SEVENTEEN

ALTHOUGH THE castle sounds had hours ago taken on subdued night voices, and the funeral party would leave early in the morning for the burial site in Pelgrin Forest, Toll was still awake. He lay on his bed, hands clasped behind his head, gazing upward at the flickering shadow of his bedpost on the wall above him. His mind returned once and again to the painful confrontation with Quentin that morning. He heard again the stinging words, “You are to blame… It is your fault!” Like a lash that bit into the flesh, the words tortured him, and he could not escape their fierce judgment. In the midst of his anguish he heard a knock at his chamber’s outer door, muted but distinct.

He rose, went silently to the door, and opened it. “Yes, yes. Who-Esme!” He covered his surprise and opened the door wider to let her in.

“Toli, I…” she began, her eyes pleading, “it is Bria.”

She backed away, pulling Toli out into the corridor.

“What has happened? What is wrong?”

“She stands out on the bartizan and will not come in. She stares as if transfixed. I do not know what to do, or how to move her.”

They hurried quietly along the wide passage to the royal chambers, their shadows flitting beside them over the rough walls. “How long has she been out there?” he asked.

“When I brought her supper, she was standing there and told me to leave it, and when I came back a little while ago to see her asleep, her bed was unturned and her food untouched.”

Toli nodded but said nothing until they reached the royal apartments; Esme opened the door and went in quietly, Toli following. They passed through several rooms and came out onto the balcony where Bria stood motionless as carved stone, staring out into the moon-drenched night.

Toli took one long look and then turned to Esme. “Go and find Alinea,” he said softly. “It may be that she can be of help here.”

With a nod Esme left. Toli turned and went out on the bartizan. The night was cool and still; crickets chirped among the vines that grew up along the walls.

“My Lady,” he said gently, “it is very late, and we have much to do tomorrow.”

The Queen did not move or make a sign that she had heard or even noticed Toli’s presence. It was as if she were under a sorcerer’s spell and could be touched by nothing of the world around her.

Toli reached out a hand and took her arm. It was cool to the touch, and though she did not resist she also did not move. “My Lady,” Toli insisted, “you must rest.”

There was a brushing tread on the stone of the balcony, and Alinea, with a shawl over her arm, approached. “Bria, my dear, it is your mother.” She took the shawl and placed it over her daughter’s shoulders, speaking in soothing tones. “Come away, my darling.”

Alinea glanced at Toli and Esme. Toli stepped aside and motioned for Esme to follow him. The two retreated to an inner chamber.

When they were alone, Alinea put her arms around her daughter and held her. “Dear Bria,” she sighed, “I can only wonder what you must feel.”

A shudder passed through the younger woman’s body. Alinea continued in soothing tones to reassure her. At length there came a sigh and Bria turned her eyes, glassy from their long vigil, toward her mother. “He is out there, Mother,” she said, her voice full of pain. “My little one, my son, my beautiful boy. He is gone. I shall never see him again. I know it. I… shall -nev -Oh, Mother!”

At once the tears welled up and began rolling down her fair cheeks. She buried her face in her hands. Alinea pulled her tightly to her and stroked her auburn tresses.

In the chamber beyond, Toli and Esme heard the long, agonized sobs and turned away, embarrassed. They crept softly to the corridor to wait.

The silence between them grew awkward; neither one could speak, though both knew that someone should. Esme glanced tentatively at Toli; he looked back. She dropped her eyes. He turned away.

At last the silence became unendurable. Toli opened his mouth and stammered, “Esme, I… I-”

The door beside them opened, and Alinea appeared. Her deep green eyes reflected the depths of her sorrow, but her voice was calm and comforting. “She will sleep now, I think,” she said simply, having accomplished what only a mother could. “You two must also rest. These next days will be difficult for us all.”

“Thank you, my Lady,” said Esme. “I am sorry-”

“Shh. Say no more. I will look in again before morning, but I am certain she will sleep soundly.”

“Good night,” said Toli and turned away at once. The two women watched him go.

“That one bears the full weight of care on his shoulders,” said Alinea. “I wish Quentin were here-he would know how to deal with him. No one else can give him counsel.”

Esme did not speak, but turned mournful eyes toward the Queen.

“So much hurt in this world,” Alinea continued. “How fragile our happiness. When it is gone, it seems as if it never was and is never to be regained. But all things move under heaven according to the Most High’s will. Nothing happens that he does not see.”

“Where is the comfort in that?” asked Esme, her voice filled with dismay. “Oh, this Most High of yours-I will never understand him.”

Alinea looked kindly at the woman beside her. She gathered her under her arm much as she had done with Bria a few moments before, and led her along the corridor back to her rooms. “Ah, Esme, I thought I would never understand either. But Durwin would tell me, understanding comes through faith, not the other way around. I used to puzzle over that endlessly.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means that there are many things about the Most High which faith alone can see. I have learned that all the reasons and all the thought in all the world still cannot bring one closer to belief. Belief must come from the heart.”

Esme shook her head slowly. They had reached her chamber door; she turned to face Alinea, taking her hands. “This god is very different from any I know. The others require neither faith nor understanding, but are content with presents and oblations. It is so much simpler.”

Alinea smiled. “Yes, the old gods are simpler. But they do not care what happens to men. They do as they will. But the Most High cares very much-more than you can ever know.”

“That, at least,” said Esme as she turned to go in, “is something worth believing. Good night, my Lady. Thank you for your words. Good night.”

Under night’s dark veil the travelers moved with quick stealth. They kept to the road as much as possible, pushing eastward, avoiding the villages along the way, giving them wide berth in order to escape detection.

Prince Gerin trudged along with his head down, though he remained alert to any possibility of escape. He had overheard one of his guards say that by morning they would reach their destination. If he was going to escape, he reasoned, it would be best to try sooner rather than later.

He had thought about nothing else all day, having grown tired of waiting for someone to come rescue him. Why don’t they come? he wondered. What can be keeping them? They must be looking for me. They must certainly know where I have gone. Perhaps they cannot find me. Yes, that is it! Oh, this old Longbeard is a crafty one. He has so muddled our trail that no one can find me. Yes, I must escape. Tonight.

It was settled in his mind. As soon as the attention of his guards-one standing at either side of him, and another leading his pony-wavered, or their grip slackened, he would be off. They could not catch him; he would outrun them once on horseback. That was his plan. Now he waited for his opportunity.

It came when they arrived at a crossroads. One road angled away to the north, toward the small village along the Arvin. The other led on, rising gradually as it proceeded eastward toward the Fiskill Mountains. The town of Narramoor lay straight ahead; a little further to the east and north stood the High Temple on its plateau overlooking the valley and all the realm beyond.

They paused. “We will go around the town to the south,” said Nimrood, “and then to the temple.”

“But there is a shorter way, to the north,” protested one of the guards. Others nodded.

“Yes, shorter,” Nimrood hissed, “and more prying eyes to see us pass by.”

“We know a path-” started the guard.

“Silence!” rasped Nimrood. He took a menacing step forward. “We will do as I say!” He thrust a finger in the man’s face. “I am your master!”

The man stepped backward, tripped, and fell over a stone in the road. The other guards watched him, their attention momentarily diverted.

That was all Prince Gerin needed. Quick as the flick of a cat’s tail he leapt into the saddle and snatched the reins out of the startled guard’s hands, wheeled Tarky around, and started away.

“Stop him!” screamed Nimrood. “Stop him, you fools!”

Instantly the temple guards snapped to attention. The two nearest dove for him, but the horse dodged away; they landed with a grunt in the road. Another darted toward him from the side. Gerin lashed out with the reins. The man yelled and threw his hands over his face.

“You fools!” screeched Nimrood. “He is getting away!”

The young Prince leaned down low in the saddle and kicked the horse in the ribs, urging him to speed. The guards dashed after him on either side, their dark shapes little more than shadows. The horse caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and shied, his rump in the air. It was all Gerin could do to hold on.

The guards now ringed them in, waving their hands and shouting, hoping to spook the animal.

The frightened horse bolted and bucked, tossing his head wildly. Gerin clung to the pony’s mane, pressing his legs together, fighting to remain in the saddle. The horse neighed with fright and reared, kicking up his hooves at the dancing shapes around him.

Then Gerin saw an opening. Pulling the reins aside with all his might, he turned his steed toward the break in the ring. The horse saw the opportunity, too, and dashed for it instantly.

The next thing Gerin knew, the stars and moon were spinning crazily before him; he felt himself falling, sliding, tipping back over the rump of the horse. Then the ground came up hard and knocked the wind out of him.

He lay like a sack of grain tumbled into the road, unable to breathe. Rough hands took hold of him, hauled him to his feet, and shook him; breath poured into his lungs.

He peered around dazedly and saw Tarky bounding away riderless down the road, two guards scurrying after him. Had there been a flash of light? A noise? The sound of thunder still rang in his ear. What was it that had so suddenly appeared in his path? What caused the horse to rear and throw him? He remembered seeing the old man raise his hand high above his head… then the earth and sky changed places-by what force or power, the boy did not know. Blazing violet balls of light still bobbed before his eyes; he shook his head, but they remained, fading away only slowly.

“The youngster has spirit,” intoned Nimrood. “But it must be bent to our purposes. Young sir, if you wish to remain alive and whole, you will abandon any further notions of escape.” Nimrood leaned close, his vile breath hot in the Prince’s face. “Otherwise, when they come for you they will find nothing worth the ransom.” A guard came up, panting. “That cursed beast is gone; we cannot catch him.”

“Idiots! Another mistake!” With slits of eyes glittering cruelly, the old man glared around at the chagrined faces encircling him, his long white beard glowing in the moonlight like a frozen waterfall “The High Priest will hear of your incompetence. I am certain will devise a punishment to suit me.”

Nimrood turned abruptly and started off once more. The guards stood still and watched him. “Bring him.” The voice was flat and hard. The guards fell over themselves to obey. Prince Gerin was jerked by the arms and dragged along, his feet barely touching the ground, as they continued on their way.

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