The Emperor jutted out his chin, his teeth bared in a smile. That Ardneh might take the bribe and then refuse to honor it had been considered; it would have meant no serious loss. Of course it had been expected that he might refuse with some contemptuous speech or gesture. But to cut and run, in panic… it could scarcely be anything else. The quasimaterial powers were if anything more concerned than humans were with saving face. Overawed by the Emperor and his wizards, frightened by the palace guard of monstrous demons…
Suddenly suspicious, Ominor asked Wood: “Do you suppose he smelled the poisoned bait?” The ebon sphere had been laden with the most subtle and powerful curses Wood could devise.
“Nay, great Lord.” Wood too was smiling in this moment of success, having proven his ability to control the greatest of enemies at close quarters.
Turning away from the balustrade, the Emperor walked deliberately back in the direction of his palace, massed behind its palisade of trees.
Without turning or pausing, the Emperor ordered Wood: “Make some suitable plan to rid us of this creature Ardneh. We know now he can be no mortal threat. Still…”
“Yes, Lord of Lords.” Turning momentarily to a subordinate, Wood said in an aside: “Use great care in recovering the poison bauble from the water. Better set a guard, and let it lie awhile. Who so comes into possession of it in the next hour will need all my skill to keep him healthy.”
The Emperor’s train moved on at an easy pace toward the interior of the palace grounds. There was a feeling of general relief in the air. Ordinary servants were beginning to reappear, soft gongs were striking a time-signal for mid-afternoon. Between beds of unusually luxuriant flowers Ominor paused, and the lawn chair he had been sitting in earlier was instantly unfolded and placed ready for him.
There were several business matters to be attended to. All were comparatively minor things, however, and within half an hour the Emperor was signing the last required paper, with relief because he felt inexplicably tired. Raising his eyes, he saw coming from the central parts of the palace an oddly mixed group of about half a dozen men. A pair of them were high-ranking wizards, two at least were household stewards, some were members of his personal bodyguard. All were moving with a sort of reluctant haste toward John Ominor, as if none of them wanted either to be first with whatever news they bore, or to give any appearance of delay.
He stood up and his legs nearly failed him. In his guts there twisted something like the leaden claw of death. Another poisoning plot uncovered, then. Perhaps too late, this time. Wood came from somewhere, maybe out of the air, to stand before him gesturing, and the pangs in his midsection began to ease, reluctantly.
And now Ominor saw what those coming from the center of the palace were holding up on its crystal chain. He heard their disjointed, fearful explanations of how it had just been cut from the belly of a huge, fresh-caught fish, one marked for the Emperor’s dinner.
Wood’s chief assistants were coming running to join him, to help to combat the deadly spells they had so recently set in motion. As soon as he felt a little better, Ominor called to him the High Constable, Abner.
The soldier towered above his chair. “My Emperor?”
“The wizards have failed me. There is a mission I want you to undertake. We must learn, begin to learn, what Ardneh is.”
In Rolf’s dream the demon uttered a deafening warcry and slew the world, cutting the life from it with one sweep of a great two-handed blade. The blade drew with it the blackness of oblivion, drew a curving black wall that completed itself to make a sphere and put an end to all light everywhere. Rolf cried out in fear, and leaped backwards to save himself, knowing that to save himself was what he had to do to save the world.
Before he was fully awake he was on his feet, starting up with sword in hand from where he had been lying cloak-wrapped in the long grass, stretched out sleeping on soft earth. Dazedly he realized that his outcry had not been confined to the world of dreams; his nine comrades in the patrol had been awakened, were gathering with hasty caution round him in the dark; and others elsewhere might have heard the yell also.
“I dreamed, I dreamed, I dreamed,” he kept on whispering, till he was sure the other soldiers understood. They muttered and grumbled and listened in the night, for the approach of some alerted enemy.
At last, amid some sour, whispered jokes, Mewick, the patrol commander, ordered as a precaution that all should mount; they were to move camp by a kilometer or so. This was quickly accomplished, for here on this vast, grassy plain one spot was much like another, and there were no tents and little baggage. Then with the camp re-established, riding-beasts once more picketed and a pair of sentries posted, Mewick came to where Rolf was sitting and squatted down beside him.
Neither spoke for a while. It was a warm and moonless night, with a thick powdering of stars showing irregularly between smooth-flowing, barely visible clouds. The insects of early summer racketed in the tall grass.
After a few moments Rolf whispered: “It was a warning, I believe.”
“Of what?” Mewick’s voice was soft, as usual. “Shall I call Loford here?”
“I can talk to him now, or in the morning. But there is little I can tell him.” Already the dream was disintegrating in the grip of clumsy waking memory. “There was danger, and a sense that I must act at once, to save myself. Not just fear, but a sense that my life was-valuable.”
Mewick nodded, considering. “Talk to Loford in the morning, then. But are you going to jump up yelling again the next time you go to sleep?”
“Sleep seems far from me now,” Rolf said. “I’ll take a turn at sentry-go.”
“No. You stood your watch. Sleep now. The dawn is not far away.”
Rolf shrugged, and stretched out on the ground, pulling his cloak round him, making sure that his weapons were in easy reach. He closed his eyes, though he felt sure that he was not going to get any more sleep…
… and this time the demon-monster’s sword was coming right at him, with body-splitting force. His leap and yell were no more under voluntary control than the gush of blood from a new wound. His waking convulsion left Rolf on his feet with sword in hand once more, knowing that once more he had put his comrades all in danger…
An Eastern soldier, real and solid as the grass and earth, was crouching just three meters off, sword half raised for the easy stroke that would have drained Rolf’s sleeping life into the soil. A dim, tense outline in the deceptive, grayish predawn light, the man got his blade up in the way of the hard overhand cut Rolf aimed at him. But the parry was not made with sufficient force, and the man’s face and shoulder erupted blood. He grunted, and could do nothing else before the next blow came to kill him.
The others of what happened to be an exceptionally competent Western patrol were springing up at hair-trigger tension from what could have been no more than light, uncertain sleep. Tall Chup hewed right and left and the Eastern men he struck fell back like children knocked aside. And Mewick seemed to be fighting on both sides of Rolf at once, opponents toppling before his battle-hatchet and short sword as if it were a dance they had rehearsed. And years of hard experience had made Rolf a better fighter than most. As soon as he had finished his first opponent, he turned with methodical swiftness to find another.
A white flash came inside his skull, a painless, noiseless, stunning blast. With a moment of intense clarity of thought he knew that he was wounded, and waited with a certain detachment to find out if he was slain. He felt no agony, no sickening shock, but still his legs betrayed him and he fell.
Ardneh. The half-familiar, subtle and inhuman presence was with him suddenly and reassuringly, more powerfully and personally than ever before, unmistakably the same as that which had brushed him when he rode the Elephant.
Ardneh, he thought, do not make me fall, help me to rise. But down he went, to lie on his face in the deep grass while struggling feet ripped through it all around him. Rolf could not move, but his mind was clear, and knowledge was sent him from a voiceless and unseen source. It was Ardneh himself who had wakened him with warning dreams, to keep him from being slaughtered in his sleep, and Ardneh also who had just struck Rolf down. He was being kept out of the fighting, for some purpose he could not yet plainly see.
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