The wizard returned the smile. “You might have tried it against someone else, who had not so many friends around him.”
The Baron laughed heartily. “I’ll certainly never try it against a wizard of your caliber, either. Though I have turned mat idea over in my mind, in reference to a magician or two other than yourself.”
“Indeed? Just who are these other wizards, of my caliber?” It was very hard to tell from Burslem’s voice whether he was ready to admit the possibility of the existence of such
folk or not.
Amintor shrugged. “To a blade of grass, like myself, all trees look about equally tall.”
The other grunted and gave him a long, considering look over the rim of a golden goblet of light, bubbly wine. Then Burslem said: “Now you have both Farslayer and Shieldbreaker in your hands. Are you ready now to attempt to blackmail the house of Tasavalta?”
“I also have a partner now. I must find out what you think of the scheme first.”
“That is a good answer,” said Burslem, leaning forward, setting down his wine. “And there remains Woundhealer to be considered. And other things … Let me tell you of my own most recent contact with the house of Tasavalta. I, too, thought that I had a kidnapping arranged, a number of most valuable hostages in my grasp. And my plans, too, were unexpectedly upset.”
“Tell me,” said Amintor with genuine surprise.
FOR several days now the Tasavaltan party had remained camped in the same spot. Mark was struggling with himself, unable to bring himself to give the order to begin the long march back to Tasavalta.
As he saw it, his only other choice besides starting for
home at once was to pursue Amintor again. But neither could
he bring himself to order his people to fight against the
Sword of Force. Especially not after he, the Prince, had
traded it away.
An alternative would be for him to pursue Amintor alone, leaving it to Ben and the rest of the escort to see Prince Adrian safely home. It would be easy for Mark, in a way, to run off after Amintor and postpone the full acceptance of responsibility for what he had done.
But two things held Mark back from any pursuit of the Baron. The first was uncertainty. Was the Sword’s failure to heal Adrian somehow a result of something Amintor had done, deliberately or not? The Prince could not be sure of that. The second difficulty was that Mark knew he was needed at home-the birds had brought him word that Zoltan was missing, and there would be other problems demanding his attention.
The Prince could not make up his mind. Never before had
he known the power of any Sword to fail when called upon under the appropriate conditions. There were moments when he was convinced that the Baron had somehow cheated him deliberately, had done something to the Sword that rendered it powerless to help Adrian-or else had created some magical imitation of the Sword and traded that to Mark. The Prince had seen a similar trick performed once in the past.
But all of the magicians in Mark’s party had examined the Sword in his possession, and all of them had testified that it was genuine.
Most convincing of all, the Sword with the white hand on its hilt could work its healing magic as powerfully as ever upon the wounded in his camp. Except for its failure to help his son, there was no reason to doubt that it was genuine.
But Mark could not fathom the meaning of that one exception.
Anyway, Amintor was no magician, nor was a bandit leader likely to have a great enchanter in his employ. And why, supposing the Baron had the power to do so, should he have directed such an effort against Adrian? As far as Mark knew, the pointless infliction of pain had never been one of the Baron’s traits. He had no objection to the happiness of other people-as long as they did not dare to deny him anything he wanted.
The fact was undeniable: the Sword of Mercy could cure the hurts of everyone except Adrian.
Could its magic be somehow blocked by the only equally powerful force Mark knew of, that of another Sword? He could not see how.
Or might there be some other source of power that was even stronger than the Swords?
Whatever the answer, he could not sit here indefinitely in
the middle of nowhere, bemoaning his fate. Mark at last, reluctantly, gave the order to start for home.
But scarcely had the march begun when a group of riders came in sight, approaching from dead ahead. There were three white-robed figures in the group, and when they had come closer Mark could be sure that they were priests of Ardneh. At least one of them was of high rank, to judge from the way the others deferred to him. These were accompanied by half a dozen armed servants and attendants.
Mark called a halt and exchanged greetings with the priests of Ardneh. A conference began, and all of the White Temple people were overjoyed to learn that the Prince had indeed been able to retrieve Woundhealer.
“We will erect a statue and a shrine in your honor, great Prince, above the new repository where we keep the Sword.”
Mark gave the speaker back a black look in return. “You may erect my statue if you like. But there will be no such repository.”
The others gazed at him mystified.
“I mean I am not going to return the Sword into your care. I am taking it home with me to Sarykam.”
The ones in white robes were aghast. “It is ours, Prince; it was stolen from us. What can we do to persuade you to give it back?”
“You can heal my son.”
“The Sword cannot heal him?”
“Can you? With the Sword or without it?”
The priests looked at one another. “We will do what we can,” the leader announced.
Ordering their servants to establish camp, they set up a tent and brought the patient into it. After a lengthy examination, the white-robes declared that they could do nothing for him. They were as mystified as Mark by the Sword’s failure.
One of the priests offered the opinion that Adrian’s condition might be the result of some punishment inflicted by Ardneh himself.
It was not a wise thing to say. The Prince was enraged.
“And you want me to return the Sword to you? What for? So that the next bandit gang that comes along can take it away from you again and sell it to the highest bidder? Then you can all weep and wail some more and accuse me of not being there to defend you. And accuse this child of having offended the kind gods … I want to hear no more of gods, or of you, either. Get yourselves out of my sight.”
“But, our Sword …”
“It belongs to me now, if it belongs to anyone. And it can cure just as many folk in Tasavalta as it can in your oasis in the middle of nowhere. More, for we’ll retain it.”
The priests of the White Temple were accustomed to courtesy, if not respect, from almost everyone whom they encountered. This outburst surprised and offended them. But, observing the black expression of the Prince, they withdrew with no further protests.
Hardly had the Tasavaltans resumed their progress toward home when a handful of lame and diseased folk, having materialized seemingly from nowhere out of the barren landscape, appeared in the path of the column. These approached the Prince, crowding around his riding-beast, pleading to be allowed to benefit from Woundhealer’s power. Somehow they had already learned that it was in his hands.
Mark called a halt again and gave orders to the physicians that they should use the Sword to help the sufferers. And all indeed were healed.
Ben, observing the process, commented: “If we stay in one place very long, Prince, we’re going to find ourselves surrounded by an army of ’em.”
“And if we move, I expect we may find more waiting
wherever we arrive. Well, we’ll do the best we can. I’ll not deny Woundhealer’s help to anyone who asks for it.”
For several days the Tasavaltans’ march toward home continued without further incident.
The fundamental question about the Sword’s failure would not cease tormenting Mark.
“Why, Ben? Why?”
Neither Ben nor anyone else could answer that.
Ben mumbled and scowled and was glad when he could find some excuse to turn away. The Master of the Beasts turned his head also and scanned the skies, as if suddenly hopeful that one of his missing scouts might yet return. The magicians and the doctors scowled when Mark questioned them yet again, and said as little as they could.
Once, one of the magicians answered: “Perhaps Karel can tell us the answer, Highness, when we are home again.”