And then a message came in from Mark, informing his wife that the Sword he had sought was stolen from the Temple- and he was taking their son with him and going after it.
The Princess passed on the news to her advisers. And then she tried to pray to Ardneh.
ON the evening of the day on which his hand first drew the Sword of Heroes from its sheath, Zoltan told his hosts that he intended to leave the farm in the morning, taking the Sword with him. “My uncle needs it, if what we have been told is true. As I must believe it is. I don’t know where to find him, but I must try.”
He was half expecting the old people to try to argue him out of that course of action-to tell him that the news about Uncle Mark, like the Sword itself, had come to him in a strange way and ought to be distrusted. Zoltan had his own argument ready: he couldn’t take that chance. But the Stills did not argue. They only promised him, calmly, such help as they could manage.
Early in the morning Mother Still called Zoltan into her pantry, where from a shelf devoted to remedies she took down several small jars and packages for him to carry with him on his journey. These medicines she labeled carefully and packed into a bundle. Meanwhile Father Still was making preparations of a different kind. He said he thought he knew where there was a saddle in the bam, and he expected he could spare one load beast from the harvest.
Saddlebags and a roll of blankets appeared from somewhere. And in the kitchen, Zoltan was loaded down with
food until he had to cry a halt, fearing that his load beast would be staggered with the burden.
Approaching that animal for the first time, Zoltan thought he could see why Father Still had been so sure it could be spared from the farm. It was an aged and bony beast, with a considerable amount of gray in its brown coat, and the farmer had to expend much tugging and swearing just to get it out of the barn. Under ordinary conditions the appearance of this mount would have been enough to discourage Zoltan from starting even the simplest journey. Even the finest farm animal was not the kind of beast you could ride out on thinking seriously of adventure, and this creature was not the finest. Once he was mounted, the thick shaggy hide and hard rib cage under him felt as if they might be impervious to beatings, if and when he should have to resort to that method of obtaining greater speed. And the saddle, now that he got a good look at it, was an old one and a poor one, with the additional drawback that it had doubtless been designed for a riding-beast. It seemed in some danger of sliding from the animal’s back at every jarring step.
But Zoltan accepted as courteously as he could the gifts that were meant to help him, and at last all was ready for his departure. With his new Sword hung from his waist upon its fancy belt and Farmer Still walking ahead to show him the way, Zoltan rode to the gate, ready to push on.
The farm, Zoltan discovered, had one real gate to the outside world. He had never seen that gate until now because it was on the opposite side of the farm from where he’d come in.
Mother Still, too, had ungrudgingly taken time out from her work to come as far as the gate with Zoltan and bid him farewell.
Father Still, on parting, gave Zoltan directions and advice.
His uncle Mark ought to be somewhere between here and Tasavalta-especially if, as seemed likely, Mark was out in that area searching for his missing nephew. And, if Mark truly was in need of Dragonslicer, it stood to reason that he was, or was about to be, in some kind of trouble with a dragon. Large dragons, the rare few that survived to grow into the land walker stage, were the only kind that meant real trouble, and one thing large dragons always needed was plenty of water. The only way to get plenty of water in this country was from one of the relatively few streams that crossed it. Anyone who had trouble with a dragon would have it near a stream. “Simple enough? Hey?” The farmer grinned at his own
Zoltan had to admit there was a certain sense to it.
Now Zoltan’s route, according to this scheme, was also simple. Once outside the gate, he had only to follow the boundary hedge of the farm around its perimeter until he came to running water, the stream that was here partially diverted for irrigation purposes. Then, if he followed that tumbling creek downstream, he’d find that it flowed into the Sanzu. Following that river upstream, in turn, would bring him back at last to Tasavalta. If Zoltan went that way and still failed to encounter his uncle Mark, he would have done the best he could, and he ought at least to be able to find his way home again with the Sword-treasure that he’d been given.
The main gate of the farm, pulled easily open now by man and wife, was a high and sturdy construction of wood and twisted iron with decorations of what looked to Zoltan like ivory and horn. Vines with shiny green leaves grew over all. Only when the portal was opened to let Zoltan out did the road on the outside become visible. The couple who had brought the Sword to Zoltan, once more greatly impatient to leave, had this morning followed him to the gate in their
wagon. Their team, after one night of rest and food, looked ready to go again.
The road outside the gate led straight away from the farm, and the man in the wagon whipped up his team and sped that way at once, without looking back.
Zoltan’s path immediately diverged from the road. The gate closed promptly behind him, at which time his load beast decided to stop so suddenly that it nearly pitched him over its head. He kicked the animal in the ribs and got it to amble forward.
The Sword at his side swung as he rode, banging awkwardly against his leg and the animal’s flank. Zoltan could wish he had been required to carry Wayfinder or Coinspinner instead. From what he had heard of the powers of those two, either would be able to guide him in short order to Uncle Mark. But Dragonslicer told him nothing as to which way he should be going or what he should be trying to do. Its powers were very specialized.
He wondered what sort of dragon Uncle Mark was going to have to fight. Until now Zoltan had never even seen a dragon at all, except for contemptible small-fry, the almost froglike early stages. And even those he had glimpsed but rarely.
There was no problem in finding the stream he was to follow. Leaping down from one small tumbling rapids to another, it looped close to the farm’s hedge-fence and then away again. From the quiet intermediate pool at the exact boundary, a ditch, barred from the outside world by its own grating-a simple barrier to keep cattle from wandering out- drank from the stream and led some of its water away inside the hedge. The volume of the little river did not appear to be much diminished by this drain and remained considerably larger than the Sanzu was near its source. Why, Zoltan
wondered, couldn’t the river-elemental have delivered him here?
But there was no point in wondering about that. He kicked his load beast in the ribs again and journeyed on, now following the river downstream.
Twice before nightfall he stopped to eat, using up some of his excess baggage of provisions. During his second rest stop he scanned the sky and realized that he was now under the surveillance of an aerial scout. The creature was too far away when Zoltan first saw it for him to be able to tell whether it was a friend or an enemy. Its presence was not accidental, for it kept him in sight, but did not come any closer.
When darkness overtook Zoltan he continued riding for a while, hoping to shake off the hostile observer. Progress was difficult, and he lost sight of the flyer in the night sky. After an hour Zoltan gave up and pitched camp, letting his load beast drink from the stream and then tethering it to a bush. He unrolled his blankets nearby and forbore to make a fire.
Suddenly he felt very much alone. He wished for Uncle Mark and the search party. Failing that, he wished that the crazy magician would reappear, even if it was only to favor him with another lecture.