Apart from the head wound, which did not look likely to be fatal, and some bruised and probably cracked ribs, there were no wounds to be discovered upon the patient’s body, which was lean but still looked well nourished. The rings on his fingers suggested that he might be a magician, or at least had aspirations along that line. That crack upon the head, and exposure, would seem to be the problems here, and Gelimer thought them well within his range of competence. Despite his white robe he was no physician, but the experience of years had taught him something of the art.
Once the stranger had been undressed, examined, and tucked into a warm bed, the next step was to try him on swallowing a little water, and this was soon managed successfully. When the patient was laid flat again, his blank eyes stared up at the rough-hewn wooden ceiling of the tree-stump hut, and his limbs shivered. Then suddenly he started up convulsively, and would not lie back again until Gelimer had brought him his long package and let him hold it.
In intervals between other necessary chores, Gelimer started the soup kettle heating. Presently the patient was swallowing soup as the hermit spooned it out to him.
After he had taken nourishment, the fellow slid into what looked like a normal sleep, still without having uttered a coherent word.
Gelimer, looking at his patient carefully, decided it was now certain that he was going to live.
By this time the hermit was more than ready to go back to sleep himself, but before doing so he wished to satisfy his curiosity about something.
“Well now, and just what is this treasure of yours, that you are so reluctant to give it up? And will it perhaps provide me with some clue as to just who you are and whence you come?”
The shabby package, a bundle of coarse fabric, appeared to have been hastily made, then tied shut with tough twine. The knots in the twine were somewhere between wet and frozen, and when one of them stubbornly resisted the hermit’s fingernails he went for one of his kitchen knives. The wet twine yielded to a keen edge.
When Gelimer had the package lying open on his largest table, he took one look at the leather scabbard and the black hilt he had uncovered, and turned his head to glance at his mysterious visitor once again. It was a different kind of glance this time, and he who delivered it breathed two words: “No wonder.”
What had been revealed was a sword, and something about it strongly suggested that it was no ordinary weapon. The hermit, intermittently sensitive to such things, caught the unmistakable aura of strong magic in the air.
When the hermit who had less experience than Black Pearl had had with this particular magic had drawn the blade from the plain sheath, he turned his head again for yet another look, this one of wordless wonder, at the man who had been carrying it. The blade was a full meter long, and had been formed with supernal skill from the finest steel that Gelimer had ever seen. The polished surface of the steel was finely mottled in a way that suggested impossible depths within.
Even the plain black hilt was somehow very rich; and the hermit, turning the weapon over in his hands, noticed now that the hilt bore a small white marking, two rings concentric on a dot, making a symbolic target.
Now, for a few moments, Gelimer reveled in the sheer beauty of the thing he had discovered. But within the space of a few more heartbeats he had begun to frown again. He had a vague, only a very vague, idea of what he was holding in his hands.
In the next instant, he was rewrapping the Sword in its old covering, and wishing heartily that he could immediately put it out of his house and away from himself completely. But suppose the stranger should awaken, and find his treasure gone from his side?
He left the wrapped Sword on the table.
“I must sleep while I can,” said Gelimer then to Geelong, who had come in by now and was curled on his own blanket on the far side of the room. Presently the hermit too was dozing off, a blanket over him, his body nested among extra pillows, his back against the wooden wall where it was quite warm near the tiled fireplace.
An hour passed, an hour of near silence in the house, while the storm still howled with fading energy outside. Then a piece of wood, eroded by slow fire, broke and tumbled suddenly on the hearth, making a small, abrupt noise. Gelimer, frowning, slept on. The watchbeast, sleeping, moved his ears but not his eyelids. But the eyes of the man in the bed opened suddenly, and he sat up and looked about him with something of the expression of a trapped animal, not knowing where he found himself. He looked with relief or was it resignation ? at the package on the table beside him, then at the other human occupant of the room, and then at the dozing animal.
Then he swung his feet out of the bed, and paused, raising his hands to his face as a surge of pain swept through his skull.
The animal opened one eye, gazed at the houseguest quizzically.
Another moment and the visitor was standing, moving swiftly and stealthily, hastily pulling on such of his garments as lay within easy reach, including his damp boots that someone had left to dry at a prudent distance from the fire.
The animal had both eyes open now, but still it only looked at the stranger dumbly. To get up and dress was something that humans did all the time.
The hermit, still sleeping in exhaustion, was lying now at full length on the warm wooden floor, with his head fallen back between a pillow and a piece of firewood. The firelight gleamed on Gelimer’s bald head, and he snored vigorously.
The visitor unwrapped his package, not noticing, or perhaps not caring, that the ties had earlier been cut. Then he pulled the Sword from its sheath, and shot another glance in the direction of the sleeping hermit.
The hindquarters of the watchbeast moved in a swift surge, straightening its body in a line aimed at the stranger. The animal crouched, a very low growl issuing from its throat.
But the stranger failed even to notice. His dazed mind was elsewhere, and he had no designs on his rescuer’s life. Instead, he was already making for the door, the drawn blade still in his hand. With his free hand he lifted the latch silently.
Geelong subsided on his old blanket. Humans went out of doors all the time, in all kinds of weather. It was a permissible activity.
The inner door was pulled shut, very softly, behind the stranger. The small tunnel penetrating the thickness of what had been a great tree’s bark was long enough to muffle the entering cold wind, muffle it enough so that Gelimer in his warm place by the fire was not awakened.
Now all was silent again inside the house except for the furtive small noises of the fire itself. A stable warmth reestablished itself in the atmosphere. Faintly, as if at a great distance, the wind howled across the upper end of the carven passage of charred wood that served as chimney.
Only a short time passed before cold air moved in again, faintly, under the inner door; and then that door opened once more. It had been left unlatched. The watchbeast raised his head again, alertly.
The stranger entered, empty-handed. His face had a newly drained and empty look, paler even than before. Mechanically, unthinkingly, he latched the door behind him. Then he moved, very wearily but still quickly, to stand over the wrappings that had once held the Sword but now lay empty and discarded on the bed.
He moved his hands over the emptiness before him, in what might have been either an abortive attempt at magic, or only a gesture of futility. His lips murmured a word, a word that might have been a name. Then he raised his eyes from the bed, and stood, swaying slightly on his feet, staring hopelessly at the curve of wooden wall little more than arm’s length in front of him.
Again his lips moved, silently, as if he might be seeking the help of some divinity in prayer.
Except for that he appeared to be simply waiting.
The sound that at last awakened Gelimer impressed the hermit as enormous, and yet he could not really have said that it was loud. It was as if the human ear, sleeping or waking, could catch only the delayed afterrush of that vast howling as it faded. As if mere human sense was inevitably a heartbeat too late in its perception to receive the full screaming intensity of the thing itself.