Suddenly the rider nearest Thomas stood up straight in his stirrups. He had grown a monstrous winged helmet, a blot of darkness that dragged and lifted at him, tearing from him a terrible cry of pain and fear. His riding-beast panicked and bucked, and those next in line on either side reared up, their masters struggling to control them. “Birds!” The word was passed in low voices, quickly, to the right and left.
The first man who had been struck drove off his attacker somehow. The line continued to move forward. There was another flurry of movement a little distance off, and then another. Both birds were now attacking, making it seem that there were more than two of them. Ranging up and down the line from the spot where the first man had been struck, Strijeef and Feathertip spread pain and confusion, dragged one man from his saddle, got home on others with beak or talon, veered off from the attack if they found a man ready to meet them with sword or short lance.
There was no telling how long the birds could keep it up. Thomas forced himself to move toward the enemy, out of the shadow of the bush, flat on his belly. It seemed unbelievable that they did not see him. But the riders were looking up into the starry air, guarding themselves. Their beasts were all prancing now, uncertainly if not in downright panic.
On his belly Thomas slid forward one meter after another, keeping his face turned down and hidden. A riding-beast snorted almost over his head, and hooves trampled past, almost hitting him. If the beast saw him, the rider did not.
He heard a grunt of triumph from one of the men in the line that had now drawn past him, and simultaneously a scream whose like he had never heard before from the throat of man or beast. A little scuffle ended in a fluttering sound that he had never before heard made by the wings of the Silent People. And then very quickly the desert was once more almost silent.
Thomas now lay on his face without moving, without trying to look around. The knife-handle in his hand was slippery with sweat. He breathed the dust of the desert floor. His ears told him that the line of troopers was moving on still, going away from him.
When the sounds were far away he rose cautiously to knees and elbows, and turned his head. The mounted men were many meters distant now and still receding; he could not see that any of them carried a feathered trophy. He crawled, circling as widely as he dared over the area where the birds had fought the men. But he could find no trace, not even a feather.
The birds had saved him, whether they had died for him or not. Dead or wounded, they were gone. Thomas crawled out into the desert until he had put sufficient distance between himself and the enemy to feel safe in standing up. Looking back, he saw that the noose had tightened all the way. The enemy force, once gathered, seemed to be breaking up into smaller bands. There was no telling how they might move next to scour the plain. The only course for Thomas was to keep moving away from them, farther and farther out into the desert. Well, so be it, then. He would turn back westward when he could. Maybe it would have to be tomorrow night. He had his water bottle.
At dawn he was still walking; by now the Castle and the pass were many kilometers behind him. The Black Mountains ahead were not perceptibly closer. Nearly barren, the land around him undulated to the horizon in all directions, without a sign of men or man-made things.
Daylight was liable to bring reptiles. The notch of the pass behind him was too distant for him to see the leatherwings rising above the Castle, but he knew they would be there. He would soon have to hole up for the day.
The scanty vegetation here offered no really promising place to hide. He would go on a little, looking for a bigger bush. Now in the growing light he began to notice an odd thing. The sand in places had a crusty, pocked, granular look, as if it had recently been rained on. Yes, just a day ago he and Rolf had seen the improbable rainstorm moving over this part of the desert. The Oasis of the Two Stones was in this general area, though Thomas could not see it for the rolling of the land between. He went on, still searching for a good hiding place, and casting frequent anxious glances up at the brightening sky.
Then he saw a reptile, but it was on the ground, and dead -and, like the rain-stippled sand around it, something of a marvel. He stepped over a low dune to find the reptile’s body there in the hollow before him. It lay sprawled and twisted, gray-green no longer but swollen and black.
The death was not the marvel -reptiles had their diseases and misfortunes, and certainly their enemies -but rather the manner of the death. The body was swelled enough to split the scaly skin, but not with decay, rather as if the creature had been roasted alive. Yet the sand around showed no signs of fire or great heat, only the faint marks of yesterday’s rain.
Around the swollen body stretched a strap that held a pouch -the reptile had been one of Eku-man’s couriers. Thomas turned the child-sized body over with his foot. The pouch itself was burned black and torn; the charred fabric crumbled further at his touch. There was no heat left in it now. Inside, his gingerly probing found what had doubtless been a written message, but the paper dissolved into ash-powder at a breath.
There was something in the pouch, however, that did not dissolve. A closed case of some heavy metal. It was of a shape that might contain some precious jewel, but the size of Thomas’s two fists. He turned it over carefully in his hands. It was not an Old World thing, he decided, for its shape and joining lacked the incredible precision that distinguished the metalworking of the ancients. It was blackened and battered. Thomas could not read the signs that were graven on it, but as he weighed it in his hands he felt certain that he held some powerful magic. The enemy would hardly freight his couriers with mere gimcracks.
So the thing must be taken to Loford. Thomas buried the reptile and its emptied pouch with hasty scrapings of sand, to keep the others of its kind from finding it.
Walking on, he shook the strange case in his hands and could feel a shifting weight inside. He turned it over and over, and felt the natural temptation to open it. But caution prevailed over curiosity, and he thrust it unopened into his pack.
Looking up again for reptiles, Thomas was pleased to see that the sky was clouding over. If there was to be a peculiar rainy season this year in the desert, well, he would take advantage of it; clouds would hide him from the reptiles better than any of these scanty bushes could.
As the sun came up a rim of clear sky brightened all around the horizon; but directly overhead a solid low overcast a couple of kilometers in diameter developed. The grayness of it thickened and darkened in swirls and ominous gatherings of vapor, while Thomas mentally cheered it on. A good rain would not only protect him from aerial observation, but could eliminate any chance of his running out of water.
Thomas sat down for a rest. The clouds showed no inclination to blow in any direction today, the air seemed windless. The first grumble of thunder sounded overhead; the first big drops came pelting down. He put out his tongue to taste them.
There was a flare and flicker above, then thunder once again. Sullenness growing in the atmosphere, and an electric pause. And then a high-pitched scream, that brought Thomas leaping to his feet and spinning around. From the same direction that he had come, a young woman was now running toward him, some fifty meters away. She wore a simple farm-girl’s dress, and a wide hat such as the folk of the Oasis wore when working their unshaded fields. As she ran toward Thomas she was crying out, “Oh, throw it! Throw it away from you!”
Some buried part of his mind must have been aware already of the danger, for now he did not hesitate an instant. He scooped the blackened thing of power out of his pack and in the same motion of his arm lobbed the weight of it away from him, putting all his strength into the effort. And then the air seared white around him, and a shock great beyond hearing seemed to tear apart the world.
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