Half an hour after that, and now far out of sight of home, the boy was stretched out on a flat rock beside the tiny river, reaching down to where a patch of tall white flowers grew at the water’s edge. The flowers were delicate things with long stems and almost frothy petals, and there was a golden center in each blossom. The perfume was here, all right, but it was still not as strong as Zoltan had expected it would be-he would get only a tantalizing hint, and then another one, long moments later.
A few meters behind Zoltan, his riding-beast was placidly cropping grass.
Somehow, once Zoltan had found the flowers, his craving for adventure was temporarily forgotten. He lay there looking long and long into the pool.
He gazed into the murmuring water until he saw the reflection of white shoulders and black hair.
ON that same morning, in the city of Sarykam, there were trumpets and drums at parting: a demonstration by the people of the city for the Prince they had come to love and respect over the last eight years of peace, and during the war that had gone before.
Prince Adrian, his small body clad in plain garments of rich fabric, a scaled-down version of his father’s clothing, perched in the saddle of a sturdy riding-beast beside his father’s mount. Jord, in the role of grandfather, held one of the Princeling’s tiny hands in his huge ones and said goodbye. Mark’s mother, Mala, a plain woman in her late forties, was there too, to wish the travelers well.
Adrian had ridden before, briefly, in parades and on the practice ground. Perhaps he thought that this was to be another parade. His parents had told him repeatedly what the purpose of this journey was. But there was no indication that their explanations had penetrated very far into the darkness that sealed his eyes, and more often than not closed off his mind. He held his head now in a characteristic pose, tilted on one side as if he were listening to something that only he could hear. His sightless eyes were busy. And one small hand, when Jord released it, rose and questioned the air ahead of him. His other hand continued to clutch the reins.
Now Karel, on a balcony overlooking the Palace courtyard in which the expedition had assembled, was giving the travelers such blessings as he could, chiefly by invoking the name of Ardneh.
One notable absence from the scene was that of General Rostov. There were plenty of likely reasons for his not being present-the near-success of the apparent kidnapping attempt seemed to require a thorough revamping of some of the defenses, and the General’s full attention was required for that. But he had let it be known that he disapproved of Mark’s taking Shieldbreaker out of the country. Rostov considered the Swords in the royal armory, like the other weapons, all public property and liable to be required at any time for the defense of the realm.
A short distance away from where Mark and Adrian sat their mounts, Ben, too, was mounted and ready. His wife had come to see him off and to offer him a few last words of advice and admonition.
When he had had what he thought enough of this, Ben excused himself to take a final count of heads. Making sure that everyone who was supposed to be in the train was actually present was really someone else’s job, but an independent checkup wouldn’t hurt. There were thirty mounted troops under the command of a young cavalry officer, and a handful of skilled wizards and physicians. Cages in the baggage train held half a dozen small winged messenger-beasts, and near them rode a journeyman beast master to manage and care for them.
Finally the order to march was given, hard to hear amid the noise and confusion that invariably took over any attempt at ceremonious departures. Tumult passed through the gates of the Palace, and then the city streets.
As Mark passed out through the great main gate of the city onto the high road that led to the southwest, he was engulfed by a last roar of good wishes that went up from people assembled on the city walls and on both sides of the road. In return he drew Shieldbreaker and saluted them all. The sun, exploding on the blade, provoked yet another outcry from the people. Mark felt a brief twinge of conscience for taking the Sword with him on what was essentially a private mission; but then he reminded himself that nothing that affected the royal family could be purely private, especially not a matter of such importance as Adrian’s illness. Besides, in his heart the Prince felt that the Sword was his to do with as he wished; it had been given to him eight years ago, and not to Rostov.
Only let young Adrian come back strong and healthy from this pilgrimage; everything else was secondary to that. Apart from his feelings as a father, Mark, who had never felt he had a homeland of his own before this one, saw how important a healthy heir to the throne could be to the land and people of Tasavalta. He had read much history in the last few years, and he realized how important it was to everyone that the firstborn of the royal family should be strong and healthy, with two good eyes, and a keen mind to place at the service of his people. When the eldest child did not inherit this throne, it seemed that a time of trouble, perhaps even civil war, was practically guaranteed.
Twisting in his saddle, Mark looked back. He was far enough from the walls of the city now to be able to see above them. Kristin had evidently returned to other affairs that were demanding her attention; but high on a parapet of the Palace the fair head of little Stephen was still visible, watching intently after his father. As soon as Mark turned, his tiny, distant son waved to him yet once more; and Mark returned the wave.
Some time passed before the Prince looked back again, and when he did it was no longer possible to see who might be on the walls. The city was vanishing piecemeal now, disappearing almost magically by sections in this folded landscape. One piece or another would drop out of sight behind one hill or another, or slide sideways behind an edge of cliff. Then sometimes the walls and towers would move into view again as the road rose up beneath the travelers or carried them through another turn.
Now Mark’s gaze kept returning to the small figure that rode-so far in silence-at his side. Adrian’s riding-beast had been specially selected, and specially trained, with magicians as well as beast masters taking part in the instruction. The animal was an intelligent one, for its species-no riding-beast approached the mental keenness of the messenger-birds, some of which were capable of speech. It was also phlegmatic and dependable.
The boy usually sat in his saddle as he did everything, indifferently, when he could be persuaded to do things at all. Sometimes when riding he would forget to hold the reins that had been placed carefully in his right hand. Instead he would extend one arm, or both, groping into the air above the animal’s neck. At the moment, one of the young physicians, alert for any sign that the child might be going to topple from his saddle, was riding on his other side.
So far all was well. Adrian’s father had already observed that the child looked comparatively well this morning. The boy had spoken several connected words to his mother just before their departure and had seemed to understand at least that his father and he were going on a ride together. Now he was humming and crooning to himself in apparent contentment, and he had not yet dropped his reins.
Mark turned again in his saddle and glanced back toward the rear of the column. Somewhere amid the baggage carried by the train of spare mounts and laden load beasts were the components of a litter, in which, strapped to a sturdy load beast or slung between two animals, Prince Adrian could ride when keeping him mounted became too difficult. Of late his seizures had increased in frequency, and it seemed inevitable that on this long journey the litter was going to see substantial use.
But only on the outward-bound leg of the journey, his father thought. Mark was consumed with hope that the litter would not be needed on the way back. Pray Ardneh that on the way home my son will ride all the way at my side. And he’ll talk to me. And he’ll see me, look at me with his eyes and see me. He’ll look at the world, and I’ll explain the world to him. We’ll talk, every day and every night, all the way as we’re riding home.