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Authors: Stephen Lawhead

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The Warlords of Nin (2 page)

BOOK: The Warlords of Nin
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He drew them into the shady courtyard and led them to stone benches under a spreading tree. The yard was spotless and furnished as nicely as any garden could be whose owner loved plants and flowering things.

“Sit down, please. Sit. Omani!” Yeseph clapped his hands when his guests had seated themselves beneath the tree. A slim young girl appeared with a tray of wooden goblets and a stone carafe. She floated forward with an easy grace and laid the tray at Yeseph's elbow where he sat. “You may pour, bright one,” he said gently.

The girl poured and served the beverages around. She turned to leave, and Yeseph called after her. “See that the meal is prepared when the others arrive. It will not be long now, I think.” She bowed and retreated into the house, smiling all the while.

The Curatak did not have servants. But often young girls or boys would attach themselves to the households of older Curatak leaders or craftsmen to serve and learn at their hand, until they decided what they wished to do with their lives. In that way those who needed the assistance of a servant did not lack, and young people found useful occupation until they could enter the adult world.

Yeseph watched the girl disappear into his darkened doorway a little wistfully. Quentin noticed his look and commented, “She's a very able helper, Yeseph. You are blessed.”

“Yes, and I am sorry to lose her.”

“Why would you lose her?”

“Why not? She is nearly eighteen. She wishes to be married soon. Next summer perhaps. She and Rulan, a former pupil of mine. He is a good man, very intelligent. It will be a good match. But I will lose a wonderful cook and companion. I feel she is my own daughter.”

“Why don't you get married again?” asked Toli.

Yeseph suddenly looked flustered. “Who has been talking to you?”

“No one. I merely wondered.”

“Well, it is true nonetheless. That is what I wanted to tell you. I am to be married. I am announcing the banns tonight.”

“Congratulations!” shouted Quentin, jumping to his feet. He crossed the distance between himself and his former teacher in one bound and embraced him, kissing both cheeks.

“Who is the lucky bride?”

“It is Karyll, the cloth-maker.”

“The widow of Lendoe, who was killed in action at the forge some time ago?”

“Yes, the same. A fine woman. She has been lonely for so long . . .”

Quentin laughed. “You need not explain to us; you have our permission already. I am sure you will both be very happy together.”

“Yes,
we shall. I am very happy now—sharing this news with my friends. You know I have come to regard you both as my own sons.”

“And you have been a father to us more often than we can remember.”

“I wanted you to be the first to know.”

“Will we see the esteemed lady tonight? I would like to congratulate her as well.”

“She will be here—if that is not her voice I hear even now.”

The sound of light voices lifted in laughter came to the courtyard from the street beyond. Yeseph dashed to the gate once more and welcomed his bride and her two companions. Blushing and smiling, he led her toward Quentin and Toli, who stood grinning.

“My friends, this is my betrothed, Karyll.”

The short, round-faced woman smiled warmly back at them. Her hair was bound demurely at her neck in an ornamented netting, and among the brown Quentin could see streaks of silver. She was dressed in a plain, white, loose-fitting gown with a bright blue shawl over her shoulders. She was a handsome woman.

As Yeseph drew her close to him with his arm, he gave his future wife a look of such endearment that Quentin felt a pang of longing for his own beloved.

“Hello, Karyll, and congratulations. Yeseph has been telling us that you two are to be married. I am very pleased.”

“Thank you, Quentin. We are very happy.” She turned and gazed into Yeseph's eyes and added, “Yeseph is full of your praises. It pleases me that he has chosen you to hear of our plans first.”

“When will the wedding take place?” asked Toli.

“Yeseph and I thought that a midsummer wedding would be nice.”

“Yes,” agreed the groom. “There is nothing to prevent us from being married at once. We are both of age.” He laughed, and Karyll laughed with him. But the laughter faded when neither Quentin nor Toli shared their mirth. Both had become strangely silent; the light of happiness was extinguished in their eyes.

“What is the matter? Does our plan not meet with your approval?”

“Yes, and more than you know. But I fear that we will not be among the happy wedding guests.”

“Why not, may I ask?”

“We were going to tell you this evening. We have received a summons from the king, and we must leave for Askelon.”

“Yes? But I thought you would stay until midsummer at least.”

“No—at once. A rider came today. We must leave at once.”

“Then we will wait until your return,” offered Yeseph. Karyll nodded her agreement.

Quentin smiled sadly. “No, I could not ask that. I do not know when we may return. Please, do not wait on our account.”

Toli attempted to set the mood in a lighter tone. “Kenta means that if he were in your place, Yeseph, he would not let so lovely a creature escape into the arms of another. You must marry as you have planned. We will return to greet the happy couple before they have been wed a fortnight.”

Yeseph sought Quentin's eyes. He, as usual, could read more than his friend intended. “Is it trouble, then?”

“I fear that it is.” Quentin sighed. “The message did not say it directly, and the courier did not say more. But he left immediately without awaiting an answer.”

Yeseph regarded Quentin as he stood before him. From an awkward, impetuous youth had grown a square-shouldered, sensitive man—tall, lean in the way young men are, yet without the careless air they often have. Quentin had a regal bearing, and yet utterly lacked any self-consciousness of it, or the arrogance that often accompanied such a noble spirit.

A pang of longing ached in the old man's heart when he saw his young pupil and protégé wavering, as if on the brink of a great abyss. He wanted to reach out and pull him back, but he knew he could not. Quentin belonged to Dekra, yes, but he also belonged to Askelon, and neither loyalty could be denied.

“You must go, of course.” Yeseph offered a strained smile. “When will you leave?”

“Tomorrow at dawn. I think it is best.”

“Of course. Of course. Do not delay. Besides, the sooner you are off, the sooner you may return, and perhaps you will bring Bria with you this time.”

At the mention of the name, Quentin started. He smiled warmly again. The cold shadow that had fallen upon the happy group moved away, and in the glimmering of a softly falling twilight, they began to talk excitedly once more of all they would do when next they met.

Despite their desire for an early start the next morning, Quentin and Toli were the last to leave Yeseph's house. There had been much singing and eating and talking. The elders had blessed the young men's journey, and all had listened to stories and songs of the lost Ariga, sung by one of the young Curatak musicians. Then all had made their good-byes, but none more ardently than Quentin.

“Look, Kenta,” said Toli as they found their way along the dark and empty streets. The moon shone full upon the city, pouring out a liquid silver light upon all it touched.

Quentin followed Toli's gaze upward to the sky. “What do you see?”

“Oh, it is gone now. A star fell; that is all.”

“Hmmm.” Quentin retreated again into his reverie.

He listened to their footsteps echo along the streets and felt Dekra's quiet peacefulness enfold him. Then, unaccountably, he shivered, as if they had just walked through a hanging pool of cooler air. Toli noticed the quiver of Quentin's shoulders and looked at his friend.

“Did you feel it too?”

Quentin ignored the question, and they continued on a few more paces. “Do you think we will ever return to this place?” he asked finally.

“The night is not a time to dwell on such things.”

The two walked silently back to the governor's palace and made their way to their rooms. “It will be good to see Askelon again,” said Quentin as they parted. “And all our friends. Good night.”

“Good night. I will wake you in the morning.”

For a long time Quentin lay on his bed and did not close his eyes. He heard Toli quietly packing their things in the next room, and the Jher's soft footfall as he left to see to the horses before he, too, slept. At last he rolled over on his side and fell at once to sleep as the moon shone brightly through his balcony doors, peering in like a kindly face.

2

Q
uentin met Toli in the stables—the grouping of low stone structures Toli had turned to the purpose of breeding horses. In his time at Dekra, the Jher had become an excellent trainer and breeder of fine horses. In fact, with the help of Eskevar's stablemaster, he was developing a remarkable strain of animals that were a cross between the heavier warhorses, such as Balder, and the lighter, more fleet racing stock that were the pride of Pelagia. The resulting breed would possess strength and stamina enough for battle, but would also have the ability to run fast and far without tiring.

Quentin passed under the stone arch and came to stand before Balder's stall. The old warhorse whinnied softly when he saw his master approaching. Quentin held out his hand and patted the horse's soft muzzle and stroked the bulging jaw.

“You may stay here this time, old boy. Take care of him, Wilton,” he called over his shoulder to the youngster who helped Toli. “Give him an extra carrot now and then.” Then, patting the horse's white-starred forehead, he said, “We will go for a long ride when I come back.”

The stable smelled of sweet fennel and straw and the warm bodies of the horses. The smell reminded Quentin of traveling, and he reflected that he was indeed anxious to be off. He crossed to where Toli stood checking their mounts'
tack and gear.

“Good morning, Kenta. I was just about to come and wake you.”

“As you see, I am ready to go; I did not sleep much of the night. Is all prepared?” He turned to slap a milk-white stallion on the shoulder. “Ho, there, Blazer! Are you anxious to stretch those long legs of yours?” The horse tossed its flowing mane and rolled a blue-black eye at Quentin as if to say, “Why are we waiting?”

“I have only to charge Wilton with some final instructions,” remarked Toli. “Then we will go.”

Toli returned and took the reins of both horses and led them out into the quiet streets. Quentin followed at Toli's right hand and listened to the clop of the horses' hooves upon the cobbled stones of the ancient streets. In the east the sky shone with a violet haze that lightened into a golden-red hue as the sun rose higher.

Toli sniffed the air and announced, “The wind is from the west over the sea. We will have good weather for our journey.”

“Good. I am hoping to be in Askelon before the new moon. We should be able to manage that, aye?”

“It is possible. With good horses and the king's road restored through Pelgrin . . .”

“We have horses with wings, my friend. And Eskevar's road is now complete as far as the Arvin. We shall fly indeed.”

They reached the gates of the city and let themselves out. The gates were seldom tended, since Dekra had no fear of intrusion and no real need for defense.

At the small door that opened within the larger, Quentin paused and took a long last look upon the city he loved. The red stone glowed with the rosy hue of the rising sun. Towers and spires swept majestically into the clear, cool morning air, gleaming and glittering like radiant crystal.

The ordinary sounds of the city waking to life echoed out into the empty streets; a dog barked; a door opened and closed. Behind him Blazer and Riv, Toli's sleek black mount, shook their bridles, impatient to be moving along. Quentin raised an arm in farewell to Dekra and then turned to his horse.

“It is time for speed,” he called as he swung himself up into the saddle. “On, Blazer!” The horse lifted his forelegs off the ground, gave a little kick, and leaped ahead to the trail.

Quentin pushed an eager course through the low hills and into the wretched marshlands. They planned to hold north as far as Malmarby, thus skirting the boggy wasteland as much as possible. At Malmarby they would hire a boat to cross the inlet and swing along the shore west past Celbercor's Wall. Then the trail would become easier. They would make for the Arvin River where it came spilling clear and cold out of the Fiskills, ride through the wide foothills above Narramoor along the king's new road, and speed along through Pelgrin to Askelon.

The days on the trail were uneventful. Game was plentiful, and thanks to Toli's skill as a hunter, they never lacked for anything the hills could provide.

They arrived at Malmarby village one bright morning, picking the wider path toward the town out of the maze of bogs and wetlands that surrounded it.

As they approached the village, Toli stiffened in the saddle and reined his horse to a halt. Quentin mirrored his actions, wondering what had alarmed his friend.

“What is it? What do you see?”

“Something is amiss in the village yonder; I feel it.”

“It looks peaceful enough. But let us go with caution.”

They paced the horses slowly ahead, and both watched the thickets and dense shrubbery that lined the path for any signal that might confirm Toli's apprehension.

They saw no one and heard nothing until just before reaching the village itself. Quentin stopped his horse and stood in the saddle, looking around. The muddy track that served as Malmarby's main street was vacant. No living thing stirred among the rough wooden houses; no sound issued from doorway or window.

“There does not appear to be anyone around. I wonder where—”

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