There was a brief silence around the table. Then Jord spoke up, as a grieving grandfather. “Whatever the cause of the poor lad’s suffering, Woundhealer could cure him-I know it could.” This was not a new suggestion either; the only problem with it was that for the past eight years no one in Tasavalta had known where the Sword Woundhealer might be found.
Mark had paused respectfully to hear both of these remarks yet once more. Now he continued.
“As I see it, when a particular case has resisted all normal methods of healing, magical and otherwise, there yet remain three possible remedies to be tried.”
The Chief Physician, frowning slightly, looked across the table at the Prince. She said: “The first of those would be-as Jord has reminded us-the Sword Woundhealer. Second, the God of Healing, Draffut-if it is possible that he has survived what seems to have been the general destruction visited upon the gods.” The physician paused. “But I confess that I do not know what third possibility Your Highness has in mind.”
Mark sighed wearily. “At the moment it seems to me not a very practical possibility. I was thinking of the Emperor.”
“Ah,” said the physician. The syllable emerged from her lips in a way that only a wise old counselor could have uttered it, suggesting a profound play of wisdom without committing her to anything at all.
Jord had frowned as soon as the name of the Emperor was mentioned. A moment later almost everyone around the table was frowning, but no one spoke. No one really wanted to talk about the Emperor. Most of these folk had accepted the Emperor’s reputed high status more or less on faith, as the basis for granting Mark high birth. That assumption in turn had allowed them to accept him as their Prince. But to most of the world at large, the Emperor, if he was admitted to exist at all, was accorded no status higher than a clown’s, that of a low comedian who figured in a hundred jokes and proverbs.
Mark took in the reaction of his counselors without surprise. “I have spoken to him,” he told them quietly. “And you have not, any of you. But let that pass for now.”
At this point Ben shuffled his feet under the table. He might have had something to say. But he went along with his old friend and let it pass.
The Prince resumed. “Regardless of how helpful the Emperor might be to us in theory, in practice I know of no way to call upon him for his help. Some think that he perished too, eight years ago, with the passing of the gods from human sight and ken. For all I know it may be so.”
Mark paused for a long look around the table before going on. “From him-who was my father-I have a power that few of you have ever seen in operation. I know not why I have it; there are others, doubtless worthier than I am, who do not. But for the sake of the majority of you, who do not know about this power, or who have heard about it only through some garbled tale, I want to tell you the plain truth now.
“What I have is the ordering of demons, or rather the ability to raise a shield against their powers, and to cast them out, to a great distance. Yesterday I used this power to drive what I am sure was a demon away from the entrance to the cave.”
There was a murmuring around the table. Mark went on. “Over the last seven years I have repeatedly tried to use the same power for my son’s benefit, but to no avail. Whatever ails him, I am convinced that it is not possession by a demon.”
There might, Ben supposed in the silence of his own mind, there might exist a demon so terrible, and yet so subtle in its potency, that it could work without being recognized for what it was, and not even the Emperor’s son had power to cast it out. The huge man, who had seen demons at close range, shuddered slightly in the warm sunny room.
Or, he thought, it might be that the Emperor, from whom Mark’s power derived, was now dead, and all his dependent powers beginning to lose their force. That same thought had probably occurred to others around the table now, but no one wanted to suggest it to the Emperor’s son. Mark was speaking again.
“… the same objection holds to seeking the help of the Healing God. Draffut is of a different order of being than most of those we called gods-Hermes and Vulcan and so on. Those who have met them both can swear to that. Still, even if Draffut has survived until this day, we know of no way to contact him and ask his help.” “It is so.” Old Karel nodded.
The Prince raised his chin and swept his gaze around the table. “We come now to Woundhealer. And that may be a different matter. Here at last I see a ray of hope. Only this morning a report has reached us by messenger-it is a secondhand report and I do not know how reliable-that a certain branch of the White Temple, in the lands of Sibi, far to the southwest, now has the Sword of Mercy in its possession.”
There was a stir around the table. Mark went on: “According to the message we have received this morning, the diseased and the crippled are being healed there every day.”
Jord was now gazing at his adopted son with fierce satisfaction, as if the news meant that Mark had at last decided to listen to his advice. And the Master of the Beasts was nodding his confirmation of the message. It had been brought in shortly after dawn by one of his semi-intelligent birds.
Mark said: “I propose to take my son to that Temple, that he may be healed. The journey, even by the most optimistic calculation, will take months. It may of course be difficult, but the lands in that direction have been peaceful, and we think that Burslem is elsewhere. I foresee no very great danger in the trip.”
“How many troops?” asked Ben.
His old friend looked at him across the table. “I don’t want to march with an army, which would very likely provoke our neighbors in that general direction, and would at least call great attention to our presence. To say nothing of the problems of provisioning en route. No, I think an escort of thirty or forty troops, no more. And, Rostov may not like it, but I am bringing Shieldbreaker with me, to protect my son. I did not have it with me near High Manor two days ago, when it was needed. I’ll not make that mistake again.”
ON two successive nights following his strange experience in the cave, Zoltan was prey to peculiar dreams. Each morning he awoke with the most intense and mysterious parts of those visions still tangled in his mind-running water, soft black hair that fell in sensuous waves, a beckoning white arm. A certain perfume in the air.
On the second morning, as soon as he was fully awake, it came to Zoltan that he had known this fragrance before, in waking life. It was that of a certain kind of flower, whose name he had never learned, that grew in summer along the course of the newborn Sanzu. In summer and early fall there were many flowers along the banks below the point where the river left the hills of its birth and, already joined by its first tributary rivulet, began to meander across a plain.
Once he had recognized that perfume the dreams no longer seemed strange and new. Rather, they felt so familiar that Zoltan could comfortably put them from his mind. There was no point in telling anyone about them, as he had considered doing. Not anymore.
Sitting up in bed on that second morning, he squinted out through the open window of his room into the entering sunlight. High Manor, though it sometimes served as a royal residence, was definitely no palace. Though very large and old, it was not much more than a fortified stone farmhouse. The view from Zoltan’s room on the ground floor was appropriately homely. There was the barnyard in the foreground, | then the manor’s outer wall, a little taller than a man, and [ then green and rocky hilltops visible beyond that. Something winged was circling over those hills now. In all probability it was only a harmless bird, but in any case it was too far away to be identifiable.
Many of the hills in the area had caves in them, and the cave where the children had taken shelter, and where the river was born, was one of them. It burrowed into the foot of a hill just beyond those that Zoltan was able to see from his room.