Saberhagen, Fred – Lost Swords 01 – Woundhealer’s Story

The man must have been aware of her arrival, but ignored her. He approached Zoltan closely and prodded his arms and ribs as if to see whether his paralysis had reached the proper stage. He looked into Zoltan’s eyes and ears. Then he moved around Zoltan’s immobile figure, his magician’s fingers busy, weaving some additional spell into the air around his captive.

Then the wizard turned his head, suddenly taking notice of the girl on the far bank. He snapped his fingers at her, and she vanished, splashing into the water with a movement more fishlike than human.

And then the wizard himself was gone, without a splash, without a sound of any kind. Zoltan was alone.

He waited for one of the strange presences to return, but none of them did. It was as if they had all forgotten him. The moon looked down, the water gurgled endlessly around his ankles. He stood there like a statue and could not fall, but he could grow tired. His injured leg, with his weight steadily on it, hurt like a sore tooth. His ribs stabbed him with every shallow breath.

The moon was down, and dawn was approaching, and he had begun almost to hope that he had been forgotten, before the magician returned, as silently and inexplicably as he had gone.

Burslem stood again on the riverbank, looking more ordinary now in the light of the new day, but not less terrible. Now for the first time the magician’s face was clearly visible to Zoltan, and it was startlingly human, only the face of a man.

Zoltan tried to say something, but he could not speak. Now he thought it was magic that sealed his tongue, though by all the gods his fear was great enough.

The other smiled at him. “Well. So, you must be kept in storage, somewhere, somehow. For some undetermined time. How shall it be done?”

Still Zoltan could not answer. At some moment soon, surely, he would wake up. Suddenly tears were running down his cheeks.

The wizard paid no attention to any of this, but stood back, making controlled, decisive gestures. Zoltan’s legs, abruptly moving again, though still under alien control, turned him around and marched him through the water to the high bank that ran along the other side of the river. Able to look at that bank for the first time in twelve hours, the boy could see that

there was a deep hollow there, really a cave. The entrance to the recess was curtained naturally by a growth of vines that hung over it from above, and screened by tall reeds that grew from below.

His own muscles moving him like alien hands, Zoltan was turned around, then cast down inside the muddy, shallow cave like a discarded doll. Then his position was rearranged, once, from the unbearable to the merely uncomfortable.

“Might want those joints to work when I take you out again.” The magician’s voice was genial. “Of course, on the other hand, I might never take you out.”

There was a silent arpeggio of magic. Mercifully Zoltan was allowed to sleep.

Zoltan awoke, suddenly, to a realization of his physical surroundings, which were apparently unchanged.

It was late at night. The moon was high, and there was something strange about it. Eventually he understood that it had waned for several days from full. He stared at the gibbous shape for a while, trying to comprehend the implications. But in a moment the moonlight falling on the earth outside his cave showed Zoltan something that distracted him from other thoughts.

The same figure he had seen before as a silent listener, that of a little old man, a caricature of a wizard, was standing on the far side of the stream. But this time, after the first moment of confrontation, the witness was far from silent.

Speech burst from the little old man, a torrent of childish abuse that seemed in a way the maddest thing that Zoltan had experienced yet. “What are you doing in there, you stupid? You shouldn’t be there at all. Come out!” The tone was one of anger and relief combined.

The man came closer, and as he neared the stream his aged, dried-apple face was plainly visible in the moonlight.

Zoltan could not recognize it, but for a moment he thought that he should.

“Come out of there! Out of there, out of there! Ooooh! Why are you in there at all? There, now you can talk, answer me!” The voice was gravelly and phlegmy most of the time, but on some words it squealed and squawked. In general it was hard to understand.

“I want to come out,” croaked Zoltan, suddenly discovering that he was able to talk again. His own voice, after a week of silence, sounded not much better than the old man’s. “I can’t move, though. Help!”

“Help? Help? I’ve been trying to come back here and help. You think it’s easy?” the aged wizard-figure shrieked like a madman. The body in the strange robe bent and twisted, gesturing. Now he seemed to have hold of the landscape, and twitched and tugged at it, heaving until the land, stream and all, was shaking like a rug. Water rose up in a thin, foaming wall, and for a moment Zoltan feared that he was going to be drowned.

Not only the mundane landscape was affected. Invisible walls went shattering, impalpable bonds were torn apart. It was a painful, fumbling process, but Zoltan at last popped out of his cave, like a bug shaken from a carpet, to splash into the stream again. The water was a cold shock that assured him he was at least fully awake. Moving again, he felt amazingly better than he had feared he would. His arms and legs were full of pins and needles, but they were functioning. And his ribs were only lightly sore, as if the long enforced rest had healed them.

The world was quiet after its purging. The new wizard stood on the riverbank, bent over with hands on knees, peering at him.

Zoltan cleared his throat and demanded, almost prayerfully: “Who are you?”

The other straightened up and answered in a rapid voice that sounded stranger and stranger the more it chattered: “Names are magic. Names are magic. That one who flies would like to grab my name and bonk me, but he can’t. He knows your name already, but not mine. Couldn’t even see me when I was here before, so there, ha ha!” And the old man laughed. It was a mad and disconnected sound that wandered up and down the scale of human voice-tones.

With something of a chill, Zoltan realized that he could see moonlight through the edges of the figure, as if it were not really, solidly, there at all.

But after everything else that had happened, he wasn’t going to quibble about that. “I still need help, sir. Can you help me get home?”

The wizened wizard shook his head. “No, no, no! You are supposed to be out adventuring, Zoltan. You’re big, you’re all grown up, and you can’t go home yet.”

That was a shock. “Why can’t I?” He wiped his eyes, his face. He was almost sniveling.

“Why? Don’t you know? I turned the words around so you could understand them, when those two were talking. Your- your uncle Mark needs help.” The wizard stood with fists on hips and glared.

“Oh.” Zoltan, feeling shamed, squelched his way out of the water and sat down on the bank. “How can I help him? What can I do?” Then, without waiting for an answer, he jumped up again. “Uncle Mark or whatever, I’ve got to get out of here before they come back-and how did you do that, just now? Get me loose, I mean?”

“I know tricks. I found out some pretty good tricks, to get things loose. Good old Karel, he put together some great elementals.” The wizard chuckled and slapped his bony thigh. Mere image or not, the impact sounded solidly.

“Are you a friend of his, sir?”

There was a pause. “We’ve met a few times.” And the old man, mouth slightly open on his snaggled teeth, squinted sharply at Zoltan, as if to see whether Zoltan had got the joke.

Zoltan, who could see no joke, once more asked for help.

“You’ve got to go and help your uncle first,” his rescuer repeated relentlessly.

“If-if Uncle Mark really needs me, I’ll do what I can.” Zoltan swallowed. “I’ll help. But you’ve got to tell me where to go, and what to do, and-and how to do it.”

The other stood with his fists on his hips, nodding his head sharply. But his speech, just at first, did not sound all that confident. “I don’t know if I can tell you all that. But I think I know what I can do-I think. Oh, fuddle-duddle, I can do it. Tell you what, Zoltan. Right now you look very tired, so why don’t you go to sleep?”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred