After staring for another few moments at the hills, he jumped up and began putting on his clothes.
In the great hall downstairs, Zoltan found that the usual morning routine had not yet been reestablished. His mother and sister were not yet up, and formal breakfast for the family was not yet ready. He made his way into the kitchen, exchanging morning greetings with the cooks and servants, wheedling and pilfering to assemble a breakfast of fruit, cooked eggs, and fresh bread.
Stowing a second small loaf inside his jacket, he went outside. Summer was showing signs of waning-the leaves and fruit on the nearby trees established that-and the early air was cool. Zoltan gave good morning to the stable hands, who were busy, and saddled his own riding-beast, Swordface. The name derived from a bold forehead patch of bright white hair.
Soft black hair … and the scent of certain flowers. They were sharper memories than mere dreams should ever leave in waking life, and during the daytime they kept coming back to Zoltan at moments when he least expected it.
He rode out through the open front gate of the Manor. A soldier was stationed there this morning, and Zoltan waved before heading his mount at a steady pace toward the hills. He had said nothing to anyone about his destination, but he was going back to the cave. When he got there he … but he didn’t know yet exactly what he was going to do.
Two days ago, coming out of the cave with the other children, all of them shaken and unnerved, he had got a close look at some of the bandits, who of course by that time were already dead. Neither Zoltan nor any other Tasavaltan had been able to recognize any of them. At the time, looking at the corpses, about all Zoltan had been able to think of was that men like that would never have had a beautiful young girl traveling with them. Unless, of course, she were their prisoner. And then she’d have to be tied up, hobbled somehow, to keep her from running away. But he had the impression that the girl he had actually seen had been perfectly free.
Now, two days later, there were moments it seemed to Zoltan strange that he had not yet mentioned the girl to anyone. It was not that he had deliberately decided to make a secret of her existence. It was just that when Karel, and Uncle Mark, and others had talked to him, questioning him about what had happened while he was in the cave, she had vanished from his mind completely. Zoltan had told his questioners that he hadn’t even looked out of the cave. Later on, dreaming or awake, the memory of her would pop back, and he’d think: Oh yes. Of course. And then he’d wonder briefly .how he could ever have forgotten, and wonder whether he ought to tell someone next time he had the chance.
Maybe going back into the cave this morning and looking out again from the exact same spot would help him to fix the whole experience in his memory. Then he could tell everyone all about it. He really ought to tell someone….
That girl, though. The more Zoltan thought about her, the more he realized she was a great mystery. He wasn’t at all sure that she was the little dark-haired girl that he remembered from his childhood. Sure looked like her, though. It might take a wizard as good as Karel to figure out who this one really was.
Zoltan’s brow furrowed as he stared forward over the neck of his riding-beast, for the moment not paying much attention to where Swordface was taking him. It was more than strange, it was really alarming that he hadn’t mentioned the girl to anyone, not even to Karel when the wizard had questioned him. It was very peculiar indeed. Almost as if Swordface stumbled lightly over something, recovering quickly. Zoltan raised his head sharply and looked around him. He had the sensation that he’d almost fallen asleep in the saddle, that he’d just been riding, without being able to think of anything, for an uncomfortably long time. Where was he going? Yes, out to the cave. He’d had a sudden sense that there was something … watching? Calling him?
What had he been thinking about before he almost dozed off? Oh, yes, the girl.
Maybe she was really an enchantress of some kind, just observing, or trying to help the children, and the attacking villains hadn’t been aware of her presence at all. That would explain things satisfactorily. Or maybe …
It seemed like one of those great questions about which it was almost impossible to think clearly, like life and death, and the meaning of the universe. Anyway, it was all a great mystery, and he, Zoltan, ought to be trying somehow to solve it. Maybe that had been the message of her eyes.
Usually it took a little less than half an hour to ride out to the cave from the Manor. This morning Swordface was ready to run, and Zoltan, his own eagerness growing, covered the distance a little more quickly than usual. It remained a fine, cool morning, with a little breeze playing about as if it could not decide which way it meant to blow over the uneven sea of grass that stretched over most of the country between the Manor and the high hills.
And Karel had tried to raise elementals here. Zoltan had never seen anyone raise an elemental, or even try, and he was curious; he had heard people say that particular kind of magic was almost a lost art. And it seemed that the effort must have helped somehow; Karel was very good. The boy wondered if there could be anything left of those powers now, two days later. If today he might feel a hillock twitch when he stepped on it, or find the stream somewhere suddenly twice as wide and deep and full of water as it was elsewhere.
Twice in the next few minutes, as he drew ever closer to his destination, he passed small squadrons of cavalry, and on both occasions the soldiers rode near enough to make very sure of who he was before they saluted and went on with their patrol. Zoltan’s growing sense of adventure faded each time as the patrols approached him, then began to grow again. He felt confident that he could avoid being spotted by the soldiers if he tried.
Presently he drew in sight of the cave burrowed into the base of a high, rocky hill. From the low, dark mouth of it the Sanzu issued, and the open place in front of the cave was still torn up and stained where the clash between bodies of mounted men had trampled the rocky soil and littered it with death. There were no graves here-the bodies of friend and foe had all been removed elsewhere for examination and burial.
Now a few more mounted soldiers came in sight, and Zoltan exchanged a few words with their young officer, explaining that he had felt an urge to ride out to see what was happening.
“There’s nothing much happening now, Prince.” Zoltan as a royal nephew did rate that title, but ordinarily he heard it only on the most ceremonious of occasions. This soldier was one he did not know. The two talked for another minute, and then the patrol moved on.
Zoltan, alone again, sat his mount, listening to the murmur of the stream, and looking at the dark, low aperture from which it issued. There was no use going into the cave again, he decided. The black-haired girl was not here any longer. She had to be somewhere, though.
For just a moment it seemed to Zoltan that a cloud had passed over the sun. But when he looked up, the sky was clear and empty.
The scent of certain flowers …
The memory this time was as sharp as reality. He thought that it was the same perfume that had come to him in his dreams, and that the flowers grew downstream, not really very far from here. He turned his riding-beast in that direction, following along the bank.
Zoltan had a good idea of the lay of the land for perhaps a kilometer or two downstream from the point where he was now. Beyond that point, if he should have to go that far, everything would be strange and new.
He looked ahead eagerly, feeling ready for some undefined adventure.
There were no soldiers in sight now. The last patrol he had seen had ridden off in a different direction.
The high plain ahead of Zoltan as he rode was dotted with a thin, scrubby forest, and there were very low hills on the horizon, between which, somehow, the Sanzu must find its way.
Half an hour after Zoltan had seen the last soldier, he was still following the Sanzu downstream, without any clear idea of exactly what he expected to find in that direction besides the flowers. He was now entering the region where the land started to turn rough again after the strip of plain, and the stream started trying to get away from the high country in one little rushing descent after another. There were still signs everywhere of the recent passage of Tasavaltan patrols, but he ignored them.