Thrall of the Ebon Dynasty, Keeper of the Necklace and rightful King of Forthe.
"Faith!" exclaimed Rald to himself; "if ever my name is written there instead of Thrall's (and that is a question!) there'll be a pair of six-foot guardsmen standing on either side of this door to lend the gods a hand—or a sword-arm!"
He slipped his sword into its scabbard, cautiously so that it would not rasp, and lifted both hands to the bar. Although a confirmed atheist, he felt a tingle in his nerve centers for his own daring in thus grasping a thing forbidden by the gods to human hands, and a slight chill raced down his spine as his fingers encountered the cold metal. For a moment the shadows appeared to be dancing on the stones of the wall—or was it that the walls themselves were quivering like sentient organisms?
"King Rald!" he asserted, reassuringly, and wrenched the bar from its sockets.
It felt inordinately heavy in his hands, surprizingly heavy for a piece of metal hardly thicker than the sword he swung so lightly; his heart, which had been pulsing in faster tempo for the moment, only regained its normal rate when he stood the forbidden barrier softly against the farther wall. A faint dew moistened his forehead. It was easy enough to shock the wenches of the taverns with blasphemy against the Seven, but here in the dim and time-hallowed halls of ancient Castle Forthe their dark and secret powers seemed very menacing indeed.
"King Rald!" he repeated, and paused, startled. Unconsciously he had spoken aloud, and the sound of his voice tearing asunder the stillness within the aged and sacred corridors caused him to croudi and quiver like a wild thing. An instant; then, superstition forgotten, he became the cynical thief again. He amended his late boast in a whisper: "Fool Rald!"
The oval doorway was no longer an obstacle. Before a gentle push of a hand the double doors swung inward. Rald was amazed to see the room beyond lit by three great torches stuck at intervals along the walls; so closely had the portals been fitted that not a single ray of light escaped their edges, and his abrupt transition from moonbeams to firelight left him momentarily in blinking uncertainty. Recovering, he saw that the chamber was unguarded and promptly closed the doors to prevent any unexpected gleams from alarming a chance guard.
The room was not large; it contained none of the great statues or scarred armor of long-deceased kings that obstructed so many of the public halls to remind a properly awe-stricken populace of the might of the dead. The walls were covered with fold upon fold of black velvet tapestries; bare stones appeared only where niches held the huge ironwood torches that would burn, untended, for weeks without replacement. Opposite the entrance stood a low dais supporting the carved seats of the double throne of King Thrall and his royal sister, the Lady Thrine. Here was the Inner Council chamber where foreign emissaries were interviewed, where treaties involving peace and war and politics were signed, where only the great were welcome and death was the penalty for the unbidden.
Hanging high between the cushions of the double throne and outlined in stark simplicity against the background of black velvet, its thousand facets pouring a brilliance of colors in great cascades under the flickering beams from the torches, gleamed the legendary Necklace of the Ebon Dynasty.
It was the objective of Rald's quest.
The Necklace was composed of a string of fifty diamonds, each one itself worthy of the ransom of a king, and the lot, in