Arasham frowned. ‘That’s true, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘But how may we avoid being deceived?’

Sparhawk pretended to think about it. Then he suddenly snapped his fingers. ‘I have it!’ he exclaimed. ‘What better way to confound the deceitfulness of the Church than by the word – a word known only to you and to me and to King Obler of Deira? Thus may you know that a message is genuine. Should any come to you with the message that the time has come, but who cannot repeat the word to you, that man will be most surely a serpent of the Church sent to deceive you, and you should deal with him accordingly’

Arasham thought about it. ‘Why, yes,’ he mumbled finally ‘I believe that might indeed confound the Church. But what word can be so locked in our hearts that none may seek it out?’

Sparhawk threw a covert glance at Martel, whose face was suddenly filled with chagrin. ‘It must be a word of power,’ he said, squinting at the roof of the tent as if deep in thought. The whole ploy was obvious even childish, but it was the kind of thing that would appeal to the senile old Arasham, and it provided a marvellous opportunity to settle a few scores with Martel, just for old times’ sake.

Sephrenia sighed and lifted her eyes in resignation. Sparhawk felt a little ashamed of himself at that point. He looked at Arasham, who was leaning forward in anticipation, chewing upon emptiness with his toothless mouth and setting his long beard to waggling.

‘I will, of course, accept your pledge of secrecy without question, Most Holy,’ Sparhawk said in feigned humility ‘I, however, swear by my life that the word I am about to give you in profoundest secrecy shall never again pass my lips until I divulge it to King Obler in Acie, the capital of his kingdom.’

‘And I also pledge my oath to you, noble friend Sparhawk,’ the old man cried in an excess of enthusiasm. ‘Torture will not drag the word from my lips.’ He made some attempt to draw himself up regally.

‘Your pledge honours me, Most Holy,’ Sparhawk replied with a deep Rendorish bow. He approached the old man, bent, and whispered, ‘Ramshorn.’ Arasham, he noted, didn’t smell very good.

‘The perfect word!’ Arasham cried. He seized Sparhawk’s head in a pair of wiry arms and kissed him soundly full on the mouth.

Martel, his face pale with anger, had tried to draw near enough to hear, but Sephrenia stepped in front of him. His eyes flashed angrily, and with obvious effort he restrained his first impulse to thrust her out of his way.

She raised her chin and looked him full in the face. ‘Well?’ she said.

He muttered something, turned, and stalked to the far side of the tent where he stood gnawing at a knuckle in frustration.

Arasham still clung to Sparhawk’s neck. ‘My beloved son and deliverer,’ he cried with his rheumy eyes filled with tears. ‘Surely you have been sent to me by God Himself. We cannot fail now. God is on our side. Let the wicked tremble before us.’

‘Truly,’ Sparhawk agreed, gently disengaging the old man’s arms from about his neck.

‘A thought, holy one,’ Martel said shrewdly, though his face was still white with fury. ‘Sparhawk is only human, and therefore mortal. The world is full of mischance. Might it not be wiser to –’

‘Mischance?’ Sparhawk cut him off quickly. ‘Where is your faith, Martel? This is God’s design, not mine. God will not permit me to die until I have performed this service for Him. Have faith, dear brother. God will sustain and keep me against all perils. It is my destiny to fulfil this task, and God will see to it that I do not fail.’

‘Praise God!’ Arasham exclaimed ecstatically, ending the discussion.

The doe-eyed boy brought in the melons at that point, and the conversation shifted to more general matters. Arasham delivered another rambling diatribe against the Church while Martel sat scowling at Sparhawk. Sparhawk kept his eyes on his melon, which was surprisingly good. It had all been too easy, somehow, and that worried him just a little. Martel was too clever, too devious to have been so easily circumvented. He looked appraisingly across the tent at the white-haired man he had hated for so long. Martel’s expression was baffled, frustrated and that was also not like him. The Martel he had known as a youth would never have revealed such emotions. Sparhawk began to feel a little less sure of himself.

‘A thought has just occurred to me, Most Holy,’ he said. ‘Time is crucial in this affair, and it is essential that my sister and I return to Deira at once to advise his Majesty that all here in Rendor is ready and to convey to his ears alone that word which is locked in both our hearts. We have good horses, of course, but a fast boat could take us downriver and deliver us to the seaport at Jiroch days earlier. Perhaps you or one of your disciples – might know of some dependable boat-owner here in Dabour whom I could hire.’

Arasham blinked at him vaguely ‘A boat?’ he mumbled.

A faint movement caught Sparhawk’s eye, and he saw Sephrenia move her arm as if only shaking back her sleeve. Instantly he knew what she had been doing all along.

‘Hire, my son?’ Arasham beamed at him. ‘Let there be no talk of hiring. I have a splendid boat at my disposal. You will take it, and with my blessing. I will send armed men with you and a regiment – no, a legion – to patrol the banks of the river to make sure you reach Jiroch safely.’

‘It shall be as you command, Most Holy,’ Sparhawk said. He looked across the tent at Martel with a beatific smile. ‘Is it not amazing, dear brother,’ he said. ‘Truly such wisdom and generosity can only come from God.’

‘Yes,’ Martel replied darkly, ‘I’m sure of it.’

‘I must make haste, holy Arasham,’ Sparhawk rushed on, rising to his feet. ‘We left our horses and belongings in the care of a servant in a house on the outskirts of town. My sister and I will retrieve them at once and return within the hour.’

‘As you see fit, my son,’ Arasham said eagerly, ‘and I will instruct my disciples to have the boat and the soldiers made ready for your journey downriver.’

‘Let me show you the way out of the compound, dear brother,’ Martel said from between clenched teeth.

‘Gladly, dear brother,’ Sparhawk said. ‘Your company, as always, fills my heart with joy.’

‘Return directly, Martel,’ Arasham instructed. ‘We must discuss this wondrous turn of fortune and offer thanks to God for His grace in providing it.’