Then came darkness and silence. Not the cessation of the dream, but an interval of empty night contained within it. And then, presently, as if he were emerging from deep shadow, the powerful wizard Karel beheld huge trees, of a kind that even his waking eyes had never seen; and now he could see the river that had roared in flood, and the serpent Yilgarn that lay in wait for everyone at the end of the world to swallow gods and men together. The serpent in the dream was trying to swallow the mightiest river in the world, and in turn the river tried to strangle the serpent and kept on running always to the sea.
That scene faded. Karel twitched in his bed, in his high lonely chamber in the royal Palace of Tasavalta; and the benevolent guardians that never left him by day or by night, the invisible powers that he, like other wizards good and evil, relied upon against his enemies, tried to keep the worst of his dreams from gaining too much hold over him. But there were limits on how much his powers could do.
The wizard, as helpless in his own sleep as ordinary men might be in theirs, dreamt on. Against a sky aglow with fantastic stars and comets, he saw the griffin that flew by midnight, and he saw who rode upon the griffin’s back.
Karel woke up when his dream showed him that. His body jolted upright in a moment, and he was screaming like an abandoned child.
For a long moment he did not know who he was or where he was. Fear had dissolved everything. He sat there in his narrow bed, trying to control his sobbing breath and listening to the night wind that howled around the high stone corners of the Palace tower that held his room.
It had been only a dream. Only a dream. But the wizard was still afraid, still terrified, because he knew what the dream meant.
Once upon a time it had been possible to confine the worst things in the world in a dungeon under the world. But no one, not even an Emperor’s son, could do that now.
Princess Kristin, too, was wakeful on this night. There were no dreams for her unless they came in the mere sound of the wind as it moaned around the carven stones. To keep her thoughts from being snatched away by the wind she listened to the surging surf of autumn crashing remotely in the darkness. As a child she had loved falling asleep to the sound of that autumnal surf.
But tonight sleep was far away. She got out of bed, went to
look in on little Stephen, and found him sleeping peacefully, as ever untroubled by what the night side of the world could do. On her way back to her own chamber the Princess paused to glance at another small bed, this one empty. The scrolled-up storybook that everyone had forgotten to pack for Adrian lay on the bedside table. His mother, gazing at the bed and book, was mortally certain that Adrian, wherever he and his father might be at the moment, was having a seizure. And she was not there to hold and comfort him.
That was a foolish thought. How could she be there?
She had just returned to her own room and was about to get back into bed when a familiar tap came at the door. One of her maids was there to tell the Princess that her uncle Karel was at the door of the royal suite saying it was vital that he see her now.
Suppressing her fears, Kristin quickly put on a robe over her nightdress and went to greet her uncle in a sitting room, where the servant had already brought out an Old-World
By that mellow and steady light, a signal that the world could somehow be controlled, the old man first hastened to reassure her that the things she must fear most had not happened, it was not irredeemable disaster to her husband or her oldest son that brought him to her door at such an hour.
The old man sighed. “Still, certain things have happened. I have had visions, and I decided that the telling of them had better not wait until morning.”
“Then tell them to me. I am ready to hear them.”
He sat opposite her, on the other side of a small table, with the lamp turned to a subtle glow, almost between them. “Kristin. I am going to say some names. Tell me if any of them mean anything to you.”
“Deathwings. The Master. The Ancient One.”
She considered each name carefully, as seemed to be her duty, then signed that they were strange to her.
“He has gone by other names as well.” Karel rubbed his sleep-tousled hair. “He has at least one other name, very powerful, that is very much older-and I would give much to know it. But I know now that he is still alive, and actively our enemy.”
“The Dark King?”
Her uncle shook his head. “Would that it were only he.”
“Only? Who is it, then? Tell me! What is the danger?”
Karel seemed almost at a loss to explain. “The danger is himself, and that he must be our enemy,” he said at length. “I am talking about an incredibly ancient and evil-and powerful-magician. I had thought that he was dead, many centuries ago. Everyone thought so, as far as I am aware. But he has somehow-I do not know how-managed to survive into the present. It would take me all night to tell you all I know and suspect about him, and the telling would help you very little.”
“I see,” she said, and wondered if she did.
“I am afraid you don’t see,” her mentor told her sharply. “You cannot. Perhaps it was foolish of me to wake you in this way. I can see only a little, and … you think I mean that he is merely old. That would not disturb me so. There are others who have achieved centuries.”
Something prickled down the back of Kristin’s neck and then went on down her spine. “What do you mean, then?”
“If the Beastlord Draffut is still alive,” said Karel above the howling wind outside, “he will be able to identify this man-if the one of whom I speak can still be called a man. Probably no other being on the planet except the Great Worm Yilgarn has survived so long.”
“So, what are we to do?” the Princess asked.
“What we can. Get your husband back here, to begin
with. We must contend now with greater problems than a healing.”
She said: “I had word upon retiring-I was going to tell you tomorrow-Zoltan’s riding-beast has been found, unharmed. It was grazing along the Sanzu, not twenty kilometers from the cave.” There could be no doubt of which cave the Princess meant. “The saddle was still on it.”
“But no clue to where the boy himself might be?”
“I will want to look at that riding-beast tomorrow,” said Karel abstractedly. Suddenly the Princess noticed that he looked very old. “About the Ancient One of whom I spoke. I am sorry that I woke you tonight; there is nothing we can do immediately.”
“It doesn’t matter. I couldn’t sleep.”
“I must warn you, though. He is truly abroad in the world again, and there is no way that I can match him. Nor can any other magician who lives today. Only the Swords themselves, perhaps, will stand above his power. My hope is that the Ancient One will busy himself with other matters and not turn against us directly yet. That he will attack us only through his surrogates, Burslem and others.”
“As you say,” said Kristin, “we will do what we must and what we can. Beyond that it is all in the hands of Ardneh.”
“I would,” said Karel, “that Ardneh were still alive.”
He arose from his chair, slowly and heavily, and turned as if to depart. Then he faced her again. “Tell me about Rostov. What is the General planning to do tomorrow?”
“Working on ways to use the army more efficiently in hunting for Zoltan, and patrolling the frontiers. Our army is not very large these days, as you know. I’m considering the idea of sending reinforcements after Mark. The news his birds have brought in has not been reassuring.”
The wizard nodded. “Let me talk with you again in the
morning before you issue orders. I am going to sleep no more tonight.”
“Nor I, I think. Good night.”
In the morning there was more news by flying messenger, none of it particularly good. Certain other units of the army were still being deployed into the area beyond High Manor and the surrounding hills, where Swordface had been found. A renewed and expanded search was being pressed in that area.