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

The Master of the Beasts, on his way out of the room, paused in the doorway. He was a trustworthy man, but incurably curious.

“My lady,” he asked, “is there to be any enclosure with this? Shall I pass the word that you would like the mistress of the treasury to attend you?”

“Don’t be absurd,” the Princess said, and waved him out.

As soon as the men were all gone, a maid came in and stood waiting for orders. The Princess was standing alone in the middle of the floor and trying to think. She did not want to bother to go to a roof, or a window, just to see the leathery wings climbing like the shadow of death above her Palace.

Instead, announcing that she was tired, she dismissed her maid and went alone to her bedroom, leaving orders that she was not to be disturbed save for the most serious emergency.

Once alone, the Princess cast herself down on her fine bed and wept. It seemed to her that a faint odor of her husband’s body still clung to the bedclothes, though they had all been changed several times since his departure. This made her weep the more.

A little later small Stephen, after being put to bed in his own room by a nurse, found his way in, to his mother’s side, and tried to comfort her.

Meanwhile Karel was not idle. He confirmed that his messenger had caught up with Rostov. Then he started toward his own rooms in his own high tower, where many tasks awaited him.

Entering the marble-lined, semiprivate corridor that ran the length of the Palace’s uppermost full floor, Karel muttered an imprecation under his breath. Someone was waiting to intercept him.

It was Barbara, the diminutive, dark-haired wife of Ben of Purkinje. She was dressed in fine fabrics and jeweled a little beyond the limits of good taste. The wizard groaned silently when he made sure, from her bright, anticipatory gaze, that he was her objective; he simply had too much to do to be bothered with this woman now.

“There you are, sir wizard,” she said briskly, putting herself directly in his way. Small she might be, but Barbara was not easily impressed by wizards, or, indeed, by much of anything else. Karel had heard she had been a great hand at twirling a sling in combat when she was younger. Behind her, looking helpless, was a young officer of the Palace Guard charged with keeping these upper corridors clear of those who were not supposed to be here.

Karel nodded sympathetically at the officer, who no doubt lived somewhat in fear of the lady’s husband. The wizard prepared to handle this himself.

He cleared his throat impressively, but that was as far as he got. Barbara was not in the least shy about coming out with her problem or the difficulties she had encountered for several days now in trying to see Karel. His underlings always reported that he was too busy, and what was one to do in that case but come in here after him?

“Whatever your problem is, Madam-”

“My little girl. She’s afflicted.”

“The Palace physicians, Madam, must be available to you. And they-”

“I’ve tried them. It doesn’t seem to fall into their sphere, and besides, I don’t think they know the first thing about dealing with children. Despite all the experience they must have had. They listened and looked and threw up their hands. One of them did show a glimmer of intelligence in telling me I ought to consider consulting you. Especially since it seems that you are in some way involved already.”

Karel did not rise to that bait. Instead he made a mental note to find out which physician had said that, and arrange some kind of minor revenge as soon as the opportunity arose.

For the present, he gave up. “Very well, then, what is it? As briefly as possible.”

Fortunately for his nerves, long-windedness was not really one of Barbara’s faults. “My little girl, Beth. She’s ten. She was with the other children that day when they were all caught in the cave-”

“Yes, of course. What about her?” Karel could remember the child. He had talked with her, briefly, as he had talked with all the others who had come through that ordeal, not really expecting that he would learn much from them. His expectations in that regard were confirmed. The truth was

that Karel did not particularly like children, though on occasion he felt somewhat guilty about his attitude and extended himself to put on a show for them.

“She’s been having nightmares ever since that day in the cave. Not just ordinary nightmares.”

“Madam, as I’m sure the physicians must have told you, after an experience like that it must be perfectly normal to-”

“Don’t waste my time, sir. I’m not here to waste yours. I’ve been taking care of that child for ten years, and I know what ordinary bad dreams are like. And I know when something out of the ordinary is happening.”

The wizard had already started trying to edge his way past the little woman. “I can’t spend my time on-”

She maneuvered herself boldly to keep in front of him. “It’s the one dream in particular. About a strange-looking little wizard and the commands he seems to be trying to give her. He orders her to tell you about someone riding on a griffin.”

“-on children’s dreams. If you-” Karel had taken one more ponderous step before his progress slowed to a stop. “On a griffin? What wizard is this?”

“The one who keeps talking to my daughter in her dreams is strange-looking, as I said. She describes him as looking like the painting on the nursery wall, here in the Palace. The one who rides the griffin is more frightening. She can’t see him at all well.”

Beth’s mother, with confidence equal to her determination, had brought her along to the Palace. Zoltan’s young sister Elinor had come along too, whether to offer support or receive it. She and her mother were .staying at the Palace now, that they might be the first to hear any news of Zoltan that might come in. In a very few minutes, Karel was escorting all three females up into his tower.

Once, on the winding stone stair, Karel stopped so suddenly that he startled all three of his visitors. Confronting the girl Elinor with a fierce glare, he demanded suddenly:

“On the day that you hid in the cave-”

“Yes sir?”

“Why did you pick that particular cave in which to hide? I mean, did you think of it, or Zoltan, or what?”

“No sir, it wasn’t either of us, really,” Elinor decided after a thoughtful pause. “Adrian just kept tugging us along. Not as if he could see, but like there was somewhere he really wanted to go.”

“I see,” said Karel after a moment. He turned and once more led them up the stairs.

There, a minute or two later, Barbara and Elinor were firmly lodged in an outer room while Beth was privileged to enter a certain chamber that few other human eyes had ever seen. Not that she was aware of the honor; Karel saw to it that there was little or nothing odd in the appearance of the place just now.

He seated her courteously, as if she were an adult visitor, and sat down across from her. “Now then, Beth. Tell me all about the strange dreams that have been bothering you.”

Despite Karel’s precautions, the sturdy ten-year-old was just a little awed by this place. Certain vibrations could not be quenched. But soon she was talking volubly about the dreams.

“And, you know, he’s a funny-looking little old man, and he seems to know me. And he keeps telling me to do things, like tell you about the griffin.”

“What about the griffin, exactly?”

“Like someone is riding on it-I don’t know, I get scared every time the dream gets that far. This stupid little old man keeps shouting at me, and I don’t know what to do.” Beth drew a deep breath. It was obviously making her feel better just to have this chance to talk about her problem.

“Do you know what a griffin looks like?”

“I’ve seen pictures.”

“And what does this little old man look like? How do you know that he’s a wizard?”

“Well-he just looks like one. And I saw him once when I wasn’t dreaming.” She looked up at Karel with a strange expression. “I thought it was you, sort of. I was really sure mat it was you.” “Aha. Why were you sure that it was me?”

“Because you did it for us once before, at Midwinter Festival. You made the funny wizard. It was years ago.”

“Ah,” said Karel, and closed his eyes. Then he opened them with determination. “Tell me about the day you hid in the cave. What did the funny wizard do then?”

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