The next room was completely dark and I stopped, my heart beating in my throat. Calm down, I told myself. Take a deep breath. It's alright, you haven't gone blind. Find your centre. Connect to the earth. Slowly the room around me began to take shape. A large space, with heavy, all-absorbing drapes covering the walls and the windows. Stale, stagnant air, reeking of death and decay. In spite of myself, I began to shake.
The old man took my elbow.
"Come," he told me, "I'll lead you to him. But be patient, we'll have to go slowly."
"Why is it so dark in here?"
"He can't abide the light anymore. Perhaps his sins have finally caught up with him."
"What?" I whispered out loud, but he didn't respond.
I froze, feeling the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. Somewhere in the dark, there had been a sound. I breathed out slowly, trying to determine what I had heard. Movement, I thought, like an animal in the undergrowth, afraid to be heard.
"Keep moving," the old man said. "You're doing fine."
I took a deep breath and, responding to his pressure on my elbow, I began to move forward again. Step by step we made our way in the direction where we had heard the sound. I willed myself to calm down and, slowly, carefully, I allowed my consciousness to expand.
The old man was next to me, a writhing mass of red-hot spikes hat emanated from a core that was too well-defended for me to approach.
This is too easy, I told myself as I withdrew, watching for a reaction. None came. A drop of sweat began to make its way down my cheek, and I used my free hand to wipe it off. By then, I was convinced that what I'd seen hadn't been the result of a conscious effort by the old man. Perhaps the dark had been enhancing my senses, making it easier to see into the other world than it usually was. I let what I had seen sink in for a moment, careful to hide what I was doing from the old man.
You hate him, don't you, I thought. I could see the bond between the two men, a cord weaving its way through the years of their acquaintance, frayed and nearly broken near the end. You've been loyal to him for years, you were his friend, even, and then something happened. What was it? Whatever it was, it was enough to turn the love and the loyalty of a good man into hatred, a hatred that now threatened to consume him.
Another sound caught my attention, a whimper, an animalistic sound of air being forced past a vocal cord, without sense or reason.
"Good," the old man said. "He's awake, then."
The sound had come from across the room, somewhere near the floor. He's hiding, I thought. I could sense him now, a crouching figure huddled against - what, a throne? I almost laughed out loud at the irony. As we approached he seemed to collapse in on himself, to melt into the ground, as if his outer form was disappearing along with his sanity. Suddenly I panicked. He's getting away, I thought, suppressing an urge to rush forward and grab hold of whatever was left of the King. I can't let him get away. Not before he's given me some answers, or - something.
We stopped, and I sensed I was close enough to touch the King if I wanted to. The whimpering had stopped, and for a moment all was quiet.
"What's your name?"
For a moment I wondered whether I had heard the old man correctly. "What?"
"Your name. I'll have to tell him something."
"Jorden. My name is Jorden."
I could hear his clothes rustle as he bent down to speak to the King. "Your majesty," he said, his voice little more than a whisper. "This man here is Jorden. He's one of the law-men. You remember those, don't you?"
I could hear a gasp, and then a sound that it took me a moment to recognise as laughter. "They're all gone. I had them all killed." The sound that forced its way out through his throat bore no resemblance to the King's voice that I had heard only days ago, and for a moment I couldn't help pitying him. I thought of Badur and of the boy who had been my companion for several days, and of Beron's unhappy brother who, possessed by the beast, had abducted me and tried to kill me.
"No, it's alright." I could sense the old man grappling for words. "This man has come from the west. He's met Merran, your grandson's tutor. You know, duke Harvad's youngest son." I could hear the old man choke, and for a moment none of us spoke.
"Oh Jadri," the King whispered. "Oh, my dearest boy. You were my hope and my joy, and I loved you so very much. What did I do to you?"
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