The fight at the entrance to the cave had begun without any attempt to parley, without even a single word of warning on either side. And it had been conducted to the death. None of the nameless human invaders had shown the least inclination to surrender, or even to run away. Mark had shouted for his soldiers to take prisoners, but even so none of the attackers had survived long enough to be questioned. Two who were only lightly wounded when captured were nevertheless dead, apparently of magical causes, before the Prince could begin to interrogate them.
Now a new figure appeared at the doorway to the balcony. It was Karel himself, come down from his eyrie in the second-highest tower of the Palace to talk to Kristin and Mark. This wizard was not only highly skilled and experienced, but he looked the part-as so many of the really good ones did not-sporting a profusion of gray hair and beard, a
generally solemn manner, and a massive and imposing frame clothed in fine garments. Karel departed from the popular image by having red plump cheeks, giving him a hearty outdoor look he did not deserve.
Yesterday, as the wizard had already explained, he had done what he could do at a distance. First in his own workshop, then mounted and driving his riding-beast with blessings and curses through the mountain pass toward High Manor. Grasping at every stage for whatever weapons of magic he could find, Karel had endeavored to raise elementals along the course of the small stream that issued from the cave. He thought now that his try with the elementals had been more successful than he had realized at the time, evidently good enough to confuse and delay the enemy until Mark and his force were able to reach them.
Karel’s voice rumbled forth with his habitual-and generally justified-pride. “Might have tried to produce a hill-elemental right on the spot, but that could be a problem to anyone in a cave, as I divined our people were. When you confront a hill-elemental it will tend to keep in front of you, so that what you’re trying to reach is always behind it. It’ll tumble rocks about and tilt the ground beneath your feet, or anyway make it seem to tilt, so that you go tumbling on what had been a gentle slope, or even level ground.” “Zoltan reported feeling something like that.” “I know, I know.” Karel made dismissive motions with a large hand. “But that sounded more like a demon outside the cave, the way the lad described it.”
“There was a demon, I am sure of that. And mere bandits do not ordinarily have demons at their disposal.” “I am sure that you are right in that, Your Highness.” “Go on. You were talking about the elementals.” “Ah, yes. Your river-elemental, now, is distance, length, and motion. But it can also be stasis. It sweeps things away, and hides them, and separates things that want to be together. I kept the river-walker on the scene, and the rock-roller in the background.”
“Whatever your methods were, they seem to have been effective. We are very grateful to you, Karel.”
The gray beard brushed the words away, though it was not hard to see that he was genuinely pleased by them. “Sheer good fortune was on our side as well. As to our investigation, I want to talk to Zoltan again. There are things about his account that still puzzle me a little.”
“Yes-certain details. And he’s the oldest of the young ones in the cave; maybe the most levelheaded, though there perhaps his sister may have something of an edge. Not much that one can hope to learn from children in a situation like this. Apparently none of them even made an effort to look out of the cave mouth while the enemy was there.”
“Shall I send a messenger to bring Zoltan here? He and his sister are still at High Manor.”
“No great hurry. There are other avenues of investigation I must try first. I have a strong suspicion now of who was behind yesterday’s atrocity.” Karel paused for a deep breath. “Burslem.”
Prince and Princess exchanged looks. Mark had the feeling that their tiredness had frozen them both into shells, leaving them unable to communicate freely with each other. And his own tiredness, at least, was not of the kind to be swept away by a night’s sleep.
Mark said to the wizard: “Worse than we thought, then, perhaps?”
“Bad enough,” said Karel. “Just how bad, I don’t know. We can be sure that a man who once headed magical security operations for King Vilkata himself is a wizard of no mean capacity. And there’s been no word of Burslem for eight years.”
“Where is he now?” the Princess asked.
Her uncle signed that he did not know. “At least he doesn’t have an army lurking on any of our frontiers. Those were ragtag bandits he recruited somehow for yesterday’s adventure. Having spent much of the night with their corpses I can be sure of that much at least. I think he’ll wait to see if we’ve caught on to the fact that he was behind them.”
“And then he’ll try something else, I suppose. Something nasty.”
“What can we do?”
“I don’t know. I see no way as yet in which we can retaliate effectively.” And Karel shortly took his leave, saying that he had much to do.
Husband and wife, alone again on the balcony, embraced once more then walked back into the room where their older son still slept. On the walls of Adrian’s room were paintings, here brave warriors chasing a dragon, there on the other wall a wizard in a conical hat creating a marvelous fruit tree out of nothing. The paintings had been done by the artist of the storybook, in those happy months before Adrian was born, created for small eyes that had never seen them yet.
Princess Kristin said in a weary voice: “His mouth is bruised as well, I suppose from Elinor trying to keep him quiet in the cave. I never saw a child who bruised so easily.”
Mark said nothing. He stroked her hair.
Kristin said: “It’s only great good fortune that any of the children are still alive, that that cave was there for them to hide in while Karel’s elemental moved the river around outside. Otherwise who knows what might have happened to them?”
“I can imagine several things,” said Mark, breaking a silence that threatened to grow awkwardly. “If Burslem is really the one behind it. And in the cave Adrian kept crying out, or trying to cry out, as Elinor told us. You realize it’s quite possible that he almost killed them all, betraying that they were there.”
His wife moved away from him a little and looked up at him. “You can’t mean that what happened was somehow his fault.”
“No. Not a fault. But already his blindness, his illness, begin to create problems not only for us, for you and me. Problems already for all Tasavalta.”
“It is Burslem who creates problems for us all,” the Princess said a little sharply. “I will confer with Karel again, of course, but I don’t know what else we can do for Adrian. We have tried everything already. Are you going to make him feel guilty about being the way he is?”
“No,” said Mark. “But if we have tried everything, then we must find something else to try. My son-our son-must grow into a man who is able to guard others. Not one who will forever need guardians himself.”
“And if he cannot?”
“I am not convinced that he cannot.”
Word of the Prince’s intentions went out through the Palace within the hour, and within another hour was spreading throughout the city of Sarykam. Prince Consort Mark, determined on an all-out effort to find a cure for the blindness and the strange seizures that had afflicted his elder son since birth, was calling a council of his most trusted advisers. The council was to meet early on the following morning, which was the earliest feasible time for all of its members to come together.
ON the morning appointed for the council, Ben of Purkinje was up even earlier than usual.
He was an enormous man, a pale beached whale rolling out from under the silken covers of his luxurious bed. The stout, carven frame supporting the mattress creaked with relief when his enormous weight was lifted from it. Comparatively little of that weight was fat.
Once on his feet he cast a quick glance back at the slight figure of his dark-haired wife and noted with a certain relief that she was still asleep. Then he padded into the marble bath adjoining the bedroom. Presently the sounds of water, flowing and splashing in great quantities, came into the bedroom; but they were not heard by the woman in the bed, who slept on.