And through all the puzzling and the questioning, Adrian lay for the most part wrapped in his own dreams, enfolded in his own blind world. He spoke sometimes to his father, who in turn said nothing to his son of Swords or illness or danger, but tried to tell him that they were going home and cheer him with thoughts of friends and toys and good food waiting there. The condition of the young Prince was apparently no different than it had been before the Sword of Mercy was brought to him. No seizures had assaulted him since then, but often in the past, periods of many days had passed without an attack.
Meanwhile, Shieldbreaker continued to be much in his father’s thoughts. Once Mark said to Ben: “Gods and demons, why didn’t you bind and gag me before you let me give that Sword away? I think that, after all, the scoundrel’s swindled me somehow.” And Ben could give no answer.
* * *
Mark had ridden out a little in advance of the small column, scouting the way ahead. He was gazing into the distance when, quite near, a strange figure appeared to him. It was that of a wizard, a caricature that gabbled a strange childish warning, cautioning him that he ought not to return home yet. He was able to see the figure only indistinctly and could understand only a word or two of what it said.
The Prince was suspicious of this warning and hesitantly decided not to heed it. He reported it to Ben and his own magicians when the others rejoined him, but they could make nothing of it.
“Had you seen this figure anywhere before, sir?”
“I … I was about to say no. But yet … there was something familiar.”
On the next day, a certain man appeared among a group of other feeble travelers intercepting the column. This man was young and would have been robust and active except that he suffered with an infected wound in one arm, which came near to driving him mad with pain. He was also terrified that any ordinary surgeon who treated him was certainly going to amputate his arm.
The fear was well-founded, thought Mark, looking at the injury. But when Woundhealer had rested on the limb for a few moments, the smell of gangrene was gone. A few moments more and the man sat up, flexing his biceps and proclaiming himself ready to draw a sword.
He drew no blade, however, but rather, in the relief of being healed, made a confession.
“I must tell you, Prince-I was one of the bandit band of Amintor who fought against you. I was wounded in the fight on the day that he attempted to kidnap your son.”
Mark stared at him, feeling a sullen hatred, knowing that its indulgence would bring him no peace. “Well,” he said at
last. “That is over. Here you are, and here I am. And my son is as well as he has ever been. Go your way.”
“First, Highness, I would pay my debt to you-and also to him, who deserted me on the battlefield and saved himself.” And the man spat on the ground.
He went on to relate his knowledge of Amintor’s plans, including the time and place for meeting Burslem. This man claimed to have dispatched the flying messengers that carried word between Burslem and the Baron as they planned their meeting.
Mark had learned enough to bring him to the point of a new decision. Ben and the others who had listened to the story agreed that the man was probably telling the truth.
“So, Amintor is taking Shieldbreaker on to Burslem, trying to form a partnership-I’m sure of it now, Ben. The answer to our problem with Woundhealer lies somehow with the Baron … that smooth smiling devil has swindled me somehow. I gave him the Sword I promised. Now there’s nothing to keep me from taking it away from him again. He has no more than three days’ start, on a long journey. With my mount I can catch him before he meets Burslem, since I know now where he’s headed.”
Someone, one of the mounted troopers spoiling for another fight, let out a whoop of triumph.
But Ben waited soberly for what was coming next.
Mark strode to the tent in which his son was sleeping, put back the flap, and looked inside. “Take him home for me, Ben. I leave you in charge of magicians, doctors, soldiers, everything. Much good have they done me, or Adrian. Take them all, and see that my son gets home to his mother
safely.” “Yes, Your Highness. Immediately, sire. And where in all
the hells of the Blue Temple did you say that you were going? I don’t think I could have heard it properly.”
” After Amintor.”
“You’re going alone? As he goes to meet the great magician?”
“I was alone in giving my Sword away, was I not? If what our informant told us is true, I should be able to overtake the Baron while he is still alone as well.” Mark went into the tent to speak to his son.
“And what if our informant, as you call him, lied after all?” Ben’s question outside the tent went unanswered.
Inside, the Prince bent over the small pallet. “We’ll win out, son. Or we’ll lose. But we’ll not lose by staying home and waiting for the sky to fall on us. Are you with me? I have the feeling that you’re with me.” And Mark gently squeezed the painfully thin hand and arm that lay within his grip. “Not that you can ride with me. Not yet. Ben will see you safely home. I’ll be home when I have Shieldbreaker back.”
MARK, once he had gripped Ben’s hand and had formally left him in command of the Tasavaltan force, did not look back, but completed his hasty preparations and rode out in pursuit of Amintor.
He was barely out of sight of his own column when again he heard a strange, crabbed voice calling him: “Prince! Prince!” But the next words, though conveying a sense of urgency, were garbled.
Mark turned quickly in his saddle and caught a glimpse of the strange little figure, as of a caricature of a wizard. But, as before, he could not get a clear look at it. And in a moment, both voice and image were gone.
Ben, left in command of the Tasavaltan column, angrily issued orders to continue the march home. He disapproved of what Mark was doing now, even as he had disapproved of trading off the Sword of Force in the first place. Of course, he was not the sprout’s father, nor was he Prince.
With the column in motion again, he rode along at the head of it, grumping steadily. The other people in the train left him alone as much as possible. It was unusual to see Ben of Purkinje in a foul temper, and it was all the more ominous for that.
He thought he heard a faint cry behind him. Ben turned his mount to ride briefly beside the litter. Pulling aside the canvas cover, he saw that the Princeling’s eyes were closed. The small body turned stiffly under a light cover. To Ben, who would have admitted he was no expert, it looked more like restless sleep than a real seizure.
A physician looking over Ben’s shoulder sighed. “Should we call a halt, sir?”
Ben frowned at him. “To what purpose? This doesn’t look like a fit to me. And what if it were? The child is always having them anyway, isn’t he?”
“And they never kill him. My orders are to get him home. If you think he needs treatment, do what you can for him while we keep moving. Unless you think it essential that we stop?”
“No sir.” The man sounded defeated, almost indifferent. Ben would have discharged him in an instant if he’d thought there was a better replacement available. “I have no reason to believe that it’s essential.”
Without further speech Ben urged his mount to a faster pace, leading the column on.
The next few hours of the journey passed uneventfully. The crying from the litter was not repeated. Then a keen-eyed soldier reported flying creatures in view, approaching from almost directly ahead. The column was alerted; but as the winged forms drew near, it was plain that they were friendly birds. A faint cheer went up from some of the human travelers.
Three of the birds landed at once, perching wearily on the backs of the load beasts that now bore the empty protective cages. One of the arrivals was an owl, flying now in daylight with hooded eyes, relying on the guidance of its diurnal escort. Meanwhile the remaining flyers continued to circle
powerfully above. Ben, squinting upward, could make them out more clearly now. He had heard the beast master back in Sarykam talking about them, but none had been available yet when the column left the city. They were hybrid creatures, bred of owl and hawk and magic. Grown to a size and ferocity beyond those of any other bird, they were intended by the Master of the Beasts in Sarykam to serve as escorts through dangerous air for the smaller though more intelligent messengers. The new hybrid aerial fighters unfortunately did not tolerate burdens well, even the smallest message capsules. Their brains were not well suited for making observations, or at least for relaying them in ways understandable to humans. Nor were their marginal powers of speech good enough to repeat messages accurately.