He turned to see a wiry, long-haired boy of about twelve, and a huge gray dog, sitting together on the grass along the bank. Beside them a well-made canoe, hewed out of a single log, had been pulled ashore.
“Good morning, sir,” the lad said brightly. He was wearing only a twist of bark cloth around his loins, like one of the river people, but his speech sounded very odd for one of them.
But certainly well mannered.
Talgai nodded. “Good morning to you, young sir. That’s a nice canoe you have there.”
“Ah-thank you.” The boy was staring at Talgai’s canvas bundle. “Sir, are you by any chance headed down the river? If so, I’d be glad to offer you a ride.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I am. My name is Talgai.”
“And mine is Cham.” All magicians adopted different names at times, and this was one that Adrian had sometimes used. Meanwhile the dog was doing his loutish best to demonstrate that he, too, approved of Talgai. The woodcutter could only marvel at the huge and impressive beast, while trying to fend off its more energetic advances.
For several hours before he encountered the woodcutter, Adrian had known that the Sword of Chance was very near.
He had put ashore in darkness, and then, with the great dog whining softly at his side, had walked slowly past the sleeping Talgai in the hour before dawn. The Prince had looked at Talgai and at his bundle-and then he had made preparations for this meeting.
Adrian had considered attempting to seize the Sword from the sleeping man-and he thought he might have succeeded, for the man was not actually in contact with Coinspinner as he slept. But the boy had hesitated, uncertain whether such a theft under these conditions would be either justifiable or wise.
The truth was that the apprentice magician, having now caught up with the Sword he had been pursuing, was having trouble trying to decide what to do next.
It was already plain to him that the man now carrying the Sword was no magician, and no warrior either. The way he casually set down the Sword of Chance in its rude canvas bundle, and turned his back on it-anyone who wanted to seize the weapon could grab it away from this incompetent, or so it seemed.
Still, Coinspinner was presumably now acting on this unsuspecting man’s behalf-and it had not turned him away from this encounter with Adrian, a feat that, Adrian supposed, would have been well within the Sword’s powers to accomplish. What was the meaning of this, for Adrian himself?
There were times, his father had often and solemnly told him, when it was necessary for one who bore a high responsibility to be ruthless. Still, Prince Mark was not often ruthless himself, and Prince Adrian had been raised with the ideals of simple fairness and honesty before him. He himself was in no immediate danger, as far as he could tell. How then could he justify stealing the property of this innocent and trusting man?
Another thought occurred, to confuse the Princeling further. Suppose his powerful enemy, Wood, who had almost succeeded in killing Adrian in the City, was coming after him again. Wood was known to possess Shield-breaker, and Shieldbreaker would destroy any other Sword, indeed any weapon of any kind, that was brought into physical opposition to it. But suppose that Wood was coming after Coinspinner too-?
Adrian was no closer to solving his problem as he got into the canoe, leaving the heavier Talgai to shove off and step aboard. The new passenger, obviously skilled with boats, insisted on paddling for a while. With man, boy, and dog aboard, the canoe was now fully loaded, and riding low in the water.
A few hours later, when boy and man had agreed that the time had come for a rest stop, they beached the canoe in a likely-looking place and stepped ashore.
The dog quickly disappeared into some nearby woods, and Adrian could only hope that the beast was hunting.
Meanwhile Talgai, unpacking his own modest store of food, took the oatcakes out of his pack in the process. He was on the point of stowing them away again, and offering to share some of his plainer provisions, when he took note of the hungry look on Adrian’s face.
After what looked like a brief struggle with himself, the man offered: “Here, lad, these are very good cakes. Would you like one?”
Adrian certainly would.
Before the first oatcake was completely gone, the dog had come back from the woods with a fresh-killed rabbit, which he dropped at Adrian’s feet. The beast tarried to receive a pat and a word of praise, then bounded back into the trees again.
“Your dog is trained as a hunter, then! Remarkable!”
“Yes, sir, he’s really a remarkable dog. I feel quite safe with him around.”
Meat having now been provided, a fire was the next requirement, and to that end Adrian was already gathering some dry twigs.
Talgai had come equipped with flint and steel, so there was no need for Adrian to display, or try to hide, his fire-raising powers.
By that time a second slaughtered rabbit had been delivered, in the same way as the first; once again the dog had paused to gaze steadily at Adrian for a moment, before plunging back into the woods. Adrian got the idea that now the beast would be hunting for himself.
While the meat was starting to cook, filling the air with unbearably delicious aromas, Talgai shared more of his oatcakes.
He broke off a piece of one for himself and nibbled it, but then handed the rest over to Adrian. “I have no taste for these today. But you are too thin, your ribs are showing. Eat!”
Then, while the boy ate, the man sat back, chewing some dried fish he’d brought with him. And suddenly he began to pour out his troubles, the fact that his brother was doomed to die in a very few days. And that there seemed to be nothing that could be done about it.
“Tell me, young sir, is it really good luck to be warned of a brother’s impending death? What good is a warning when there’s nothing that you can do about it anyway?”
“Good luck?” Adrian, feeling that he sounded stupid, but not knowing what else to say, echoed the question.
And suddenly the woodcutter was unwrapping Coin-spinner, and telling the Prince a different story, that of his lucky Sword.
The telling faltered; Talgai appeared to be somehow impressed with what must have been the strange expression on the boy’s face, as Adrian stared at the Sword.
“Here, would you like to hold it? Do you think that you would be happier if you were lucky too? But be careful, the blade is very sharp indeed.” And the woodcutter slid Coinspinner forward, hilt first, beside the fire.
Very cautiously indeed the Prince reached forward and took the black hilt into his own hands. Reached for it, took it into his hands, and felt the power . . .
This was not the first time that Adrian had been entrusted with a Sword to handle. Possibly-he couldn’t remember with any certainty, because he had been very small-possibly his father had once even let him touch this very hilt, years ago in the royal armory at Sarykam, The Prince had no need now to try the edges of this blade with his finger to know that the simple man across from him was telling him the simple truth about their sharpness.
Good fortune, great fortune, had come, here and now, into his hands. It was evident that if a possessor of the Sword of Chance decided to give his luck away, the Sword’s own powers were not going to act on his behalf to prevent his doing so.
“I could use some good luck,” the Prince muttered, raising the stark beauty of the blade beside the fire, gazing at it. But even as he spoke, he knew that he was going to have to give Coinspinner back.
It didn’t help to tell himself that this poor simple fellow, now smiling at him from across the fire, would actually be better off without such powerful magic. That a Sword, any Sword, would only complicate poor Talgai’s life, expose him to unexpected danger, attract the attention of powerful enemies. It didn’t even help to consider the possibility that Wood might even now be coming after the Sword and its possessor, whoever that might currently be.
Adrian, reluctantly, but feeling that he could do nothing else, handed back the Sword. He passed it carefully, hilt first, and Talgai took it carefully and rewrapped it in his piece of canvas and laid it by his side. Soon the rabbits were cooked, and soon after that they were eaten. By that time the great dog, with fresh blood on his muzzle and looking satisfied, had rejoined the two humans beside the fire.