“No need to think you’re seeing visions, nephew,” said the tall man, having observed the two occupants of the room carefully for a moment He spoke in Prince Mark’s familiar voice. “I would have hailed you down on the hillside, but I couldn’t get close, and I didn’t want to yell your name at the top of my voice. You gave us the devil of a chase uphill from the river. After we followed you to this house, we decided we’d look in to make sure that you needed no help.” Now Mark sheathed his Sword.
“We?” Zoltan could only repeat the word numbly.
“Ben and I.”
Behind Mark, entering from the hallway, appeared another big man. This one was indeed monstrously massive, though somewhat shorter than the prince and a few years older. Ben of Purkinje’s ugly face split in a reassuring smile at the sight of the bewildered Zoltan.
And he, the prince’s nephew, shaking his head in wonder and relief, at last remembered the chief of the Clan Malolo. “Bonar, put down your sword. This man is my uncle Mark, the Prince of Tasavalta.”
While Bonar was managing some kind of greeting, the Lady Yambu put in her appearance, to greet both Mark and Ben with great surprise and equally great relief.
A couple of the more trustworthy servants were posted as lookouts, while a conference of explanations was conducted. Almost the first question the two newcomers were required to answer was how they had gained entrance to the house. Mark explained, and apologized, for the secret violence of their entry. The Sword he carried at his belt was Stonecutter, and he and Ben had used it to carve their way in through the solid stone wall of the manor, a process Stonecutter’s magic accomplished swiftly and almost silently.
By now Rose and Violet, as well as Gesner, had joined the conference around the two newcomers, and were being introduced to them with a mixture of relief and apprehension.
Fortunately it now appeared that the mercenaries’ assault, such as it had been, had abated at least for the time being.
Ben, scowling out the window, muttered: “Maybe when the fire in back dies down they’ll try again.”
“Maybe.” The prince nodded. “That means we should use our time meanwhile to good advantage.”
And now for a time the conference adjourned to the great hall of the manor, where Mark and Ben were provided with food and drink. They found this welcome, having been through some hard traveling in the past few days.
Their riding-beasts, as Ben explained, had been lost in some minor skirmish with unnamed foes “between here and the desert.” Ben waved a huge hand in a generally southeast direction. For the past three days they had been on foot.
“But what brings you here?”
In answer to that question Zoltan’s uncle Mark explained that he and Ben had been on their way back to Tasavalta after concluding a deal with the desert tribesman Prince al-Farabi, by which al-Farabi had been allowed to borrow the Sword Stonecutter for a time.
With that transaction concluded, and after starting home with Stonecutter, Mark had received, by winged messenger, word from his father the Emperor. In a written message the Emperor informed his son Mark that important matters, requiring almost his full attention, were developing somewhere in the extreme south of the continent.
The Emperor had warned Mark to prepare for urgent action, and to await another message which, Mark hoped, would spell out in some detail just what he was expected to do.
“That still doesn’t explain how you and Ben come to be here. Did you mean to follow the river east, or-?”
Mark shook his head. “There was another part to the message. It suggested rather strongly that we might want to locate you. You, Zoltan, and you, Lady Yambu.”
The two pilgrims exchanged uncertain glances. “Did the message say why?” Yambu asked.
“It did not. But it did say that a Sword was at stake here, and that Swords should not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. So, we started for the valley of the Tungri as fast as we conveniently could. And here you are, and here we are.”
Zoltan whistled his amazement softly. “My great-uncle is quite a magician.”
Prince Mark sighed, but made no other comment.
Ben shrugged. “I’ve seen enough, that when the Emperor suggests something I’m inclined to listen.”
Yambu nodded her head. Meanwhile the folk native to the manor were watching and listening in silence, though Bonar once or twice seemed on the verge of breaking in with some sharp comment.
“How did you recognize me in the dark?” Zoltan wanted to know. “I mean earlier tonight, on the hill down toward the river?”
Huge Ben snorted gently. “Who else would be talking to a mermaid?”
“Oh.” Zoltan wondered if everyone in Tasavalta knew of his obsession.
Now Violet asked: “Excuse me Your Grace? Your Majesty? you say that the Emperor knew that your nephew and his friend were here? But how?”
Mark only shrugged. The gesture seemed to say that he did not understand his father’s purposes or his father’s powers. But the prince’s continued smile indicated that he had learned to trust those powers; and it no longer surprised him that he did not understand.
Ben asked: “But what’s going on here, Zoltan? Yambu?”
The two pilgrims told Mark and Ben of Farslayer’s presence here, and how the Sword had wrought such havoc among the clanspeople on both sides of the river.
Mark nodded. “We must do what we can to get it.”
A little later, when the people of the clan had left them, Mark also fretted aloud to his nephew about his ten-year-old son Adrian, who had been recently enrolled, or was about to enroll, in a new school, unspecified. There, his father hoped, he would be able safely to master the arts of magic for which he had such a natural aptitude, and which might otherwise prove such a burden to him as he grew up.
To Ben, Zoltan, and Yambu, Mark declared: “Old Karel has arranged something in the way of schooling. This time I expect it’ll work out successfully.”
Zoltan said: “We could use someone here right now with a little natural aptitude along the line of magic and a little schooling, too.”
No such luck.
Bonar and his sisters gawked at this royal personage when he rejoined them, and made efforts not to be overly impressed. They struggled not to be awed by his presence, or by that of the Sword he carried. Yet, at the same time, the Malolo survivors were more at ease now. If their manor was to be occupied at all, far better that it should be done by a reigning prince and his entourage.
It was easy to see that Bonar, despite his rather hollow protests that it did not matter, was somewhat perturbed by the tunnellike hole carved in the stone wall of his house, and by the ease with which these strangers had penetrated his defenses. But the physical damage could be easily enough repaired, and in the morning the huge man Ben helped the Malolo servants push back into place the blocks of stone that had been cut free.
Zoltan had already told Mark of his, Zoltan’s, successful search for Black Pearl, and in the same breath had informed the prince that Black Pearl had said she knew something of the Sword’s hiding place.
Bonar and his sisters repeated to Mark and Ben what they had already told Zoltan and Yambu, about the man Chilperic, who had come through here saying that he acted as the agent of the great magician Wood.
That got the prince’s full attention. “What did you tell him?”
“There is little enough we can tell anyone. He went on his way dissatisfied.”
Yambu and Zoltan also told Mark of the hermit.
Mark, who had of course heard of Black Pearl at great length while Zoltan was still in Tasavalta, listened sympathetically now to his nephew’s continued pleas to help her, but could not promise to be of any real assistance. “You’re sure it’s the same wench, hey?”
“Pardon, Zoltan. Of course you are. It’s just that I have many other things to think of. Like Farslayer.”
Still, Mark promised that if another winged messenger should come to him here from Tasavalta, he would use it to send a return message, asking Karel about magical help for mermaids.
Zoltan momentarily regretted bothering his uncle with a personal problem. But only momentarily.
An hour or two before dawn, when the fire in back had burned itself out without any renewal of the mercenaries’ attack, and when most of his comrades were asleep, Mark found his way alone up to a flat portion of the manor’s roof.
Here he found a comfortable seat, which for a time he occupied in silence and solitude, regarding the night sky and its mysteries. But when a quarter of an hour had passed, there came an almost inaudible whisper of wings. The expected messenger, an owlish, half-intelligent creature, whose wingspan was greater than the span of the prince’s arms, came gliding down out of the stars to land beside him on a small parapet.