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

Prince Mark, Adrian’s father, had brought his family home himself because there had seemed to be little or nothing more that he could accomplish personally at High Manor in the aftermath of the attack. Next morning’s sun was well up before he roused from his own uneasy and sporadic slumber.

He was alone on waking, but felt no surprise at the fact. He assumed that his wife had remained all night at the child’s bedside, getting such sleep as she was able in a chair. She had done the same thing often enough before; and Mark himself was no stranger to such vigils either.

Presently Prince Mark walked out onto the balcony that opened from his and the Princess’s bedroom. Squinting into sunlight, he looked about him over the city and the sea. The far horizon, which had once seemed to promise infinite possibilities, was beginning to look and feel to him like the high wall of a prison.

* * *

Having filled his lungs with sea air and his eyes with sunlight, and convinced himself that at least most of the world was still in place, he came back indoors to join his wife in the child’s room. It was a small chamber that adjoined their own. Kristin, looking tired, was standing beside the small bed and listening to the Chief Physician of the Royal Household. There was visible in her bearing a certain aristocratic poise that her husband permanently lacked. Her hair was blond, her face as fine-featured as that of her older son, and her eyes blue-green, with something in them of the sea, whose sharp horizon came in at every eastern window of these high Palace rooms.

The current Chief Physician-there had been several holders of the office during the seven years since Adrian was born-was a gray-haired, white-robed woman named Ramgarh. She had been in attendance on the Princess and her elder son since their return to the Palace in the middle of the night.

As Mark entered, the doctor was saying, in her calm, soothing voice: “The child is breathing steadily now, and his pulse is within the range where there is no cause for concern. If the history of recovery from past seizures holds for this one, he will probably sleep through most of the day.”

It was only what the father had expected to hear. In the past seven years he had endured more of his firstborn’s fits and seizures than he could begin to count. But still he put back the curtain from the bed to see for himself. There was Adrian, asleep, looking as if nothing in the world were wrong with him.

Mark, Prince Consort of Tasavalta, was a tall man of thirty. His hair had once been as fair as that of his sons’; but age had darkened Mark’s hair into a medium brown, though hair and beard still tended to bleach light in the sun. This morning Mark’s face wore a tired, drawn look, and the lines at the corners of his mouth were a shade deeper than they had been the night before.

Princess Kristin had come silently to stand beside her husband, and he put an arm around her. Their pose held more than a suggestion that they were leaning together for mutual support.

The physician, after dispensing a few more soothing words for both the parents, departed to get some rest. Mark scarcely heard the doctor’s parting words. They were almost always essentially the same: an exhortation to hope, a reminder that things could be worse. For about two years now there had been no more promises that new kinds of treatment would be tried. The catalogue of treatments that the doctors were ready and willing to attempt had been exhausted.

When the door had closed behind the physician, the Prince and Princess looked at each other, and then both turned their eyes back to the small form in the bed.

She said: “He will be all right now, I think.”

Mark’s voice was flat and heavy. “You mean he will be no worse off than before.”

Before the Princess could answer there was an interruption. A nursemaid had just entered the room, leading their second child, who had just awakened, his usual healthy self. Stephen was carrying, rolled up in one hand, the hand-lettered storybook that had been with him all during the long ride from High Manor.

Stephen was obviously still somewhat fogged with sleep, but he brought with him an image of hearty normality. Though almost two years younger than his brother, he was the sturdier. And now, in the way that Stephen looked at his sleeping brother, there was a suggestion of his resentment, that Adrian should be getting so much attention just because he had had another fit.

But Stephen, aware that parental eyes were on him, tucked the colored scroll of the book in at the edge of Adrian’s bed, a voluntary and more-or-less willing sharing. Then he tugged at his father’s trouser leg. “Can we go back to High Manor again today? I want to watch the soldiers.”

His father smiled down at him wanly. “Didn’t you have enough excitement there yesterday?”

“I want to go back.”

“You’ll be a warrior.” Mark’s big hand brushed the small blond head.

The mother stood by, saying nothing, not smiling.

The nursemaid returned to take the energetic child away for breakfast.

Driven by the need to do something, Mark strode out upon a balcony, where he drew a deep breath and looked out over the tile rooftops of the city well below him. From the outer wall of the Palace, Sarykam spread downhill to the sea, which here made first a neatly sheltered bay, then endless blue beyond a thin, curving peninsula of docks and lighthouses and fortifications.

A favorable combination of warm latitude and cool ocean currents made Sarykam a place of near-perpetual spring. Behind the Palace and the western fringe of the city, the mountains rose up, rank on rank, and topped with wild forests of pine. The trees upon the eastern side of the crest, toward the city and the sea, were warped by almost everlasting winds, fierce at that altitude but usually much milder down here near sea level. Six hours’ ride inland, beyond those mountains, lay High Manor, which, among its other functions, served sometimes as a summer home for royalty. And only a couple of kilometers from the Manor was the cave where yesterday’s mysterious kidnapping attempt-Mark had to interpret the violent incident as such-had been thwarted.

There was much about that attempt that the Prince still found mysterious. Naturally investigations on both the military and the magical level had been set in motion last night-as soon as the fighting stopped-and were going forward.

Even now Mark could see a winged messenger coming from inland, perhaps bearing news of some results. There, halfway between the highest tower of the Palace and the crest of the mountains, were a pair of small, fine wings beating swiftly. He could hope that the courier was bringing word of some success by the searching cavalry.

Had the attempt been only the impulsive gamble of some bandit chief, reckless enough to accept the risks in return for the chance of a fat ransom? The Prince thought not, for several reasons.

The enemy had come with powerful magical assistance. The small detachment of the Palace Guard that had been stationed, as a matter of routine protection, in the area where the children were playing had been surprised and wiped out ruthlessly. The children had been tracked to the cave where they were hiding.

And then, just when the greatest tragedy should have been inevitable, came inexplicable good fortune. The enemy, for all the competence and determination they had displayed up to that point, had been unable to determine that the children were actually in the cave. Or-and this alternative seemed even more unlikely-the enemy had known they were there, but had simply been unable to get at them. Either explanation seemed quite incredible under the circumstances. It was true that Elinor and Zoltan had both reported the subjective feeling of some protective power at hand, but in Mark’s experience such feelings had little to do with the real world.

Of course in this case the feelings could have had some basis in fact. Karel, who was Princess Kristin’s uncle as well as her chief wizard, had divined from his workroom in Sarykam that something was wrong out near High Manor and had done what he could do at a distance. Meanwhile one of the winged messengers employed by the military had fortunately witnessed the wiping-out of the Guard detachment and had darted back to its roost at High Manor to report the attack. Mark, who was at the Manor, had hastily gathered a force and ridden out at once. The children had been completely unprotected in the presence of the enemy for only a few minutes.

Mark and his swordsmen had surprised the attackers-who to all appearances were no more than a group of bandits-at the very mouth of the cave in which the children were sheltering. Fortunately it had been possible to drive off the demon at once. Mark had assumed at the time that the enemy had been on the point of entering the cave, and that his arrival was barely in time to save the children. But the children, when questioned later, insisted that the intruders, including their demonic cohort, had been immediately outside the cave for a long time. The adults took this estimate as an exaggeration-no doubt the time had seemed an eternity to children who were thus trapped.

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