That was alarming. “I’ve been asleep. Don’t make me go back again. I thought you were going to help me.”
“You are tired. Good sleep this time. Go back to sleep.”
And Zoltan did.
When he awakened again he had no idea of how much time had passed, but he could see that it was still night-or maybe it was night again. This time he could not find the moon.
At least he had not been stuffed back into the cave. He was in motion-somehow. He was in a sitting position, and his legs were resting, floating, with his knees bent and raised to the level of his chin. He was sitting on something-or in something-but he was moving.
He was really moving. That brought him fully awake. He was in the stream, submerged in water with only his head and shoulders and knees above the surface, but he was not cold or wet.
When he looked down to see what was carrying him, Zoltan discovered that, as far as he could tell, he was being borne up and along by the river itself. Bits of small driftwood ringed him around almost like a gentle fist, urged by some invisible power to offer him support, but it wasn’t the wood that kept him floating. It had to be some invisible power because there wasn’t enough wood. In this stream there should hardly be enough water.
And when he looked ahead he saw that the land itself was making way for him, trees nodding and swaying as if they walked, rocks bending out of his path where the rapids ordinarily ran swift.
He was borne upstream, through the rapids, easily and safely.
Then came a long stretch of almost level flow. He felt no fear. He was beyond fear now.
A giant fish came to splash beside him, and leap, and splash again. The reality of the night supported him, and once more he slept.
MARK kept a log of distance traveled every day, and after several weeks of the journey he began to watch for certain landmarks, hills of a peculiar configuration that had been described to him in Sarykam. The borders between Tasavalta and the land of Sibi were as a rule not defended, or even sharply defined, but at length he was satisfied that he had crossed them. The clothing of the few people who came into sight was different from that of Tasavaltan villagers, and the only dwellings now in sight were of inferior construction.
When the landmark hills at last came into sight, the Prince felt sure that he was near the Temple that he sought, and he sent a human scout ahead as a routine precaution. His beast master of course had birds in the air already-they made faster scouts than human riders, particularly where the terrain was difficult, and often brought back vital information. But there were relative subtleties in things observed, sometimes even things as important as the color of uniforms, which remained beyond the capabilities of the birds to perceive and describe.
The scout received his orders and cantered off, soon leaving behind the main Tasavaltan body that continued to travel at a more modest pace.
Within an hour after he had disappeared the lone rider was in sight again, coming back at a gallop.
Barking orders, the Prince had his small force ready for action well before the scout had come close enough to shout his news, whatever it might be. The ranks had closed around the litter-in which Prince Adrian was now spending almost all his time-and the Master of the Beasts had sent all but one of his flying creatures into the air, where they circled, keeping a high lookout.
The rider, clattering up at last to the head of the column, delivered his message out of breath.
“I found the Temple, and there’s been some kind of trouble there, Your Highness. They’ve scraped up some kind of extra barricade at the front gate, and there’s what looks like a triple funeral in progress. There were three coffins. If three people have died suddenly in a Temple that holds Woundhealer, well, I thought something strange must be happening. I didn’t go in, just took a look and came right back.”
“A wise decision. Any signs of fighting?”
“No sir. Nothing I could see. But I thought you’d best know as soon as possible what’s going on.”
Mark nodded, and considered. “All right. We’ll go on to the Temple. But with double outriders, on alert.”
With the scout leading the way, the column proceeded at the same pace as before. Within the hour the Prince had come near enough to the Temple, which lay in a small flat valley, to see the signs of trouble for himself. The funeral was over now, but the black bands that meant White Temple mourning were still in evidence, stretched across buildings and strung between them. And there, as the scout had described it, was the extra barricade built from piled-up timbers and sandbags .and even furniture, and looking more a sign of panic than of determination. The space inside the Temple’s
outer wall was thick with people, standing or sitting or milling about, but there was no sign of military activity.
The Prince motioned his own people forward. Within a few more minutes, the column had reached the outer barricade, traversed the passage through it, and arrived at the gate proper. There the single White Guard on duty, his teeth chattering, was brave enough to ask them what they wanted.
Mark, who had already halted his column, now raised his right hand in a sign of peace. “We mean no harm. We have come only to seek a healing from the Sword of Mercy.”
The man on guard appeared to be in a chronic state of shock. He looked back at the Prince as if he could not understand what Mark was talking about. Then at last he replied: “It’s g-gone.”
“Gone? Where? You mean Woundhealer has been stolen?”
Mark looked past the guard, into the compound. Now he understood the mournful look of the swarm of invalids who occupied most of the courtyard inside the gate. A White Temple was generally a hospital as well as a place of worship, but this one appeared grievously overcrowded with patients. And a faint moaning in many voices, as of some general sorrow, went up into the pleasant sky. A few nurses and physicians were going slowly and tiredly about their traditional job of trying to alleviate the sufferings of the sick and injured. The air of defeat hanging over the Temple was almost palpable.
Mark turned to Ben. “Set up our camp here, outside the walls. Post guards as usual. We will remain here for a little while at least.”
Now priests were approaching from inside the compound, looking as tremulous as their guard had been at first. When they observed that the guard was still alive and armed, they drew courage from the fact and approached the gate more
boldly, crying out their grief that the Sword of Mercy had been stolen from them.
Quickly Mark began to question the white-robes, probing for solid information. “Who was it that took the Sword from you? When? How many were there? Which way did they go?”
He was provided, willingly enough, with times and descriptions. Witnesses’ accounts differed somewhat, but were alike enough for the Prince to feel that he was getting a fair idea of the truth. Once the priests were sure of Mark’s identity, their faces brightened and they began to look at him hopefully.
One of the older white-robes said encouragingly: “They were in no hurry to get away, Your Highness. Only bandits. If you are quick you ought to be able to overtake them.”
Mark shook his head. “You say they are many hours ahead of us. My people and my animals alike need rest before we can undertake a long pursuit. And I hope that you can spare us some provisions.”
“We can. We can. We will do everything we can to help you, if you can bring us back our Sword.”
Mark dismounted, then turned back to the priests with another question. “Why do you say that the bandits were in no hurry?”
“Because, Your Highness, their leader dawdled here. He delayed and spoke for a long time with one of our long-term guests – she who was once Queen Yambu.”
Standing just outside the leafy doorway, looking into the bower’s cool interior, the Prince said: “I thought perhaps that you had vanished with the Emperor.”
“No,” replied the dun figure seated at a table inside, and let her answer go at that. When Mark appeared at her door way she had raised to him a face so changed by time and events that for a moment he did not recognize her at all.
After a moment, she who had once been the Queen got to her feet and asked the Prince to enter. When he was inside she began at once to speak of trivial matters, the weather and the timidity of her servants. She felt a great reluctance to talk about the Emperor, who, on that last battlefield, had asked her for the second time to marry him. For the second time she had refused. Only he, the Emperor, would have made such an offer to a defeated enemy. And only she, perhaps, would have rejected him as she did.