|Chapter 24: The Calling of Lions|
With a sharp spasm of coughing, the High Lord collapsed to the floor.
One Bloodguard quickly propped him into a sitting position, and Mhoram knelt beside him, peering with intent concern into his old face. "Rest briefly," mumbled Mhoram. "Our forbidding has long since broken. We must not delay."
Between fits of coughing, the High Lord replied, "Leave me. Take the Staff and go. I am done."
His words appalled the company. Covenant and the warriors covered their own breathing to hear Mhoram's answer. The air was suddenly intense with a fear that Mhoram would accept Prothall's sacrifice.
But Mhoram said nothing.
"Leave me," Prothall repeated. "Give your staff to me, and I will defend your retreat as I can. Go, I say. I am old. I have had my time of triumph. I lose nothing. Take the Staff and go." When the Lord still did not speak, he rattled in supplication, "Mhoram, hear me. Do not let my old bones destroy this high Quest."
"I hear you." Mhoram's voice sounded thick and wounded in his throat. He knelt with his head bowed.
But a moment later he rose to his feet, and put back his head, and began to laugh. It was quiet laughter--unfeverish and unforced--the laughter of relief and indespair. The company gaped at it until they understood that it was not hysteria. Then, without knowing why, they laughed in response. Humor ran like a clean wind through their hearts.
Covenant almost cursed aloud because he could not share it.
When they had subsided into low chuckling, Mhoram said to the High Lord, "Ah, Prothall son of Dwillian. It is good that you are old. Leave you? How will I be able to take pleasure in telling Osondrea of your great exploits if you are not there to protest my boasting?" Gaily, he laughed again.