“Better sleep in late tomorrow, young one. Then, soon as you’re able to get up and about, we’ll set you some chores.”
“I’ll do chores. I’ll do them”-yawn-“for you tomorrow. But I don’t see how I can stay here any longer than that.”
No one reacted to that statement. It was as if they might not have heard it. Mother Still suddenly uttered a wish that she were back on what she called the big farm; “but then we have to do as best we can.”
Struggling to stay awake, Zoltan indulged his curiosity. “Where’s the big farm?”
A hearty laugh from Still. “It’s way out in the country, laddie. That’s the best place for them. But, it’s a little harder to get to than this one. And we thought there might be visitors.”
His wife shook her head, as if her husband had made an objectionable joke. Or, more like it, as if he had repeated an old one once too often. Then she smiled at Zoltan and changed the subject. “So, your uncle Mark is Prince of Tasavalta now.”
“Yes, ma’am. He has been for the last eight years,” Zoltan acknowledged, wondering. “Do you know him?” Zoltan thought that would not be strange. His own father had died as a low-ranking soldier, and he could remember something very like poverty in his early childhood. Uncle Mark had not always moved in royal circles, and to his nephew those earlier years of his uncle’s life had always seemed the most interesting.
“Must be the same Mark that Andrew knew,” the old man commented abstractedly while taking another of Zoltan’s painted game pegs off the board.
“Well, of course, Father!” Mother Still sounded patiently and mildly exasperated. “I do wish you would try to keep up, where there’s family connections and all.”
Family connections? Zoltan thought. But he was too sleepy to think about it much.
“I keep up, Mother,” Still grumbled. “I keep up pretty well. Andrew’s the one that Yoldi married. Rest her soul.”
Andrew, in Zoltan’s experience, was a fairly common name. Yoldi was not, though. In fairly recent family history- things that had happened after Zoltan was born, but when he was still too young to remember them now-there had been Dame Yoldi, the almost legendary sorceress and companion of Kind Sir Andrew. Could these two simple old farm people be talking about that Yoldi and that Andrew? Zoltan didn’t really believe they could, and anyway he was too tired and too confused to ask.
But now, incredibly, Mother Still was talking about her late sister, who, it seemed, had unfortunately got mixed up in being an enchantress, and all that kind of thing. And it sounded as if her sister were Yoldi. Zoltan couldn’t credit it. He was half asleep and knew he was getting into some kind of hopeless muddle.
“And in the end it killed her.” Mother Still shook her gray
head, knitting furiously. She looked at Zoltan as if he was the one arguing with her. “No, laddie, that kind of a life is not for me. I’m too plain for that.”
Father Still, squinting into the yellow lamplight that fell across the gaming table, nodded patient agreement.
Then he put out a gnarled hand and deftly cleaned the last of Zoltan’s pieces off the board.
There was a steep stair and a small upstairs room at the top of it; Zoltan was sure before he saw the room and bed that they would be clean and warm and comfortable. In the moment before sleep came, he had just time to ponder whether he would be better off starting for home right after chores in the morning, or resting here another day. And eating one or two more meals of Goodwife Still’s cooking …
In the morning, Zoltan slept comparatively late. On awaking, in the broad daylight of a fully-risen sun, he jumped up, feeling somewhat guilty for having stayed so long in bed, and hurried downstairs. Mother Still was in the kitchen, and he asked to be given chores.
“That’s fine, laddie. There’re still eggs to be picked up in the henhouse.” Mother Still added that her good man was already out in the fields.
After bringing in the eggs and polishing off a gargantuan breakfast, Zoltan got directions from Mother Still as to where to find her husband and went out to join him at his labors. Zoltan felt he could hardly refuse at least one full day’s work to these people who had saved his life.
This morning, as it turned out, the job was harvesting gourds and pumpkins, which grew intermingled in the same field. A small, phlegmatic load beast pulled a cart along while Still and Zoltan cut the fruit from vines and lifted it into the cart. As before, there were no other human workers to be seen. Zoltan felt his scalp creep faintly. All right, some kind
of magic was at work here. He should have realized it yesterday; he would have realized it if he hadn’t been exhausted and half-starved when he arrived.
The great wizard Karel had told him that it was easy to tell good magic from bad, provided you could get a good look at all of the results. The results here, as far as Zoltan could see, were anything but bad.
It didn’t seem right to simply ignore the situation. Straightening up to stretch his back, Zoltan remarked: “Seems to me awfully unlikely that two people could manage to run a farm this big without any help.”
The man grunted, lifting a big pumpkin into the cart. “Can always use some help.”
“But you don’t really need any?”
Still appeared to be faintly amused. “Laddie, I live in the real world, and I expect to work. Long as there’s work here, I expect to get it done. My share of it, anyway.” He rapped the load beast on the rump, getting it to move along.
Zoltan didn’t push the subject any further. Maybe there were kinds of beneficial magic that were spoiled if you talked about them.
As he and Still were returning to the house for their noontime meal they were both surprised to see a traveling wagon, with two riding-beasts in harness, parked on the grass immediately in front of the house. The animals were lean and worn, as if they had been hard-driven. Two people, a middle-aged couple in clothing that had once been expensive but was now worn and stained as if from a long journey, were standing beside the wagon, talking to Mother Still. The goodwife had evidently just come out of the house because a kitchen towel was still in her hand.
She turned her head and called out cheerfully: “Father, Zoltan, we have more visitors!”
The newly-arrived man and woman looked around. Zoltan
saw that the man was holding an elaborate leather sword belt and scabbard out in front of him, supporting it awkwardly in both arms, as if he did not quite know what to do with it and was ready and eager to give it away. A large black hilt projected from the scabbard.
Now the man, still holding out the black-hiked weapon and its harness, approached Zoltan and the farmer. When he came closer Zoltan could see that he looked as worn as the team that drew his wagon.
“Your good wife here,” the visitor said hoarsely, “doesn’t understand. We have been commanded to bring this weapon here. So here it is. It’s your problem now.” And he thrust the weapon toward Still with a commanding gesture.
Still, however, was in no hurry to accept the present, but stood with arms folded as if he did not yet understand what this was all about.
Zoltan was now close enough to the black hilt to get a very good look at it, and he could feel his scalp creep. He had been allowed, once or twice, to enter the royal treasury in the Palace at Sarykam, and he had seen Swords before. The white symbol on the hilt of this one was a small, winged dragon.
“You’ve got to take it.” The man from the wagon sounded agonized. He shook the sword belt at the farmer so that the massive buckle jingled faintly. “We’ve put up with all we can. You people must be wizards, warriors, something. You’ll know what to do with this. I’ve been assured that you won’t hurt us. I’m only a trader, myself. My wife is only my wife.”
“Why do you bring us this weapon?” Still asked, sounding suddenly not so much like a farmer. “Wasn’t just by chance you came here, was it?”
“No. No. Because of him. He drove us to it.” The visitor looked around, as if hopeful of being able to see the person
he referred to, but not really surprised when he could not. “I mean the little old man. A little old wizard. In peculiar clothing, as if he were made up for some part on the stage. He’s been driving us crazy, hounding us for days and days. He wouldn’t accept the Sword himself when I wanted to hand it over to him. Oh, no, wasn’t able to carry anything himself, he said. I wasn’t about to argue with him, not after the way he picked up the road under our wagon and shook it like a clothesline. So he told us where to find the Sword and made us dig it up and bring it here. And now it’s yours, because I’m giving it to you whether you want it or not.” And the man glared at Still and Zoltan with a courage obviously born of desperation.