Something that was of awesome, overriding importance… but right now his field of vision was cut to a one-eyed view of grasstalks, and his own left hand. He could feel that his right hand still held his sword, but it was not by any conscious management of his.
The fighting and chasing around him seemed to go on endlessly. Time was slow at the bottom of the tall grass. He was given reassurance, in Ardneh’s subtle, wordless way, that the West was winning the skirmish. Ardneh had many other demands upon his energy. Rolf was going to be left to himself now to recover, which should not take him long.
An age or two had passed before he heard the voices of some of his friends, dourly cautious, commenting as they found the body of one of their sentries, slain by stealth. The other sentry had come through all right, it seemed, as had the animals. Now feet trampled close to Rolf again, surrounded him, and stopped.
Mewick’s soft voice announced it simply: “Rolf is dead.”
Hands turned him over; when his living face appeared under the now-brightening sky, vbices exclaimed in surprise.
Rapidly, now that he had been moved, the life flowed back into his limbs. He sat up, breaking out in a cold sweat. To a flurry of questions, he answered with such explanation as he could give. He did not understand it very well himself.
Loford, who was the only wizard present, listened with grave headshakings and then conferred with Mewick. Then Loford drew from his bag of magical apparatus a thin slab of wood in two parts, hinged like a folding game board. Loford cleared a little flat space on the ground and put down his board, and on it he cast straws once, twice, thrice, to see in which direction the patrol should move next. No divination was infalliable, of course, but Mewick wanted all the help he could get in reaching a decision.
With each cast the indicated direction was the same. Northwest. Mewick, watching closely, wore a deeper frown than usual. There was, or should be, little that way but unpopulated wasteland for a thousand kilometers or more.
In response to an inquiring look from his commander, Loford said succinctly: “Ardneh.” Then he murmured the words of the appropriate spell and tried again.
“North.” The word came firmly, in the voice of the young seeress, Anita, whose advice was so often hesitant. Prince Duncan of the Offshore Islands, who had been leaning forward in expectation of a struggle to catch some mumbled obscurity, eased back now in his camp chair. Here, many kilometers west of Mewick’s patrol, the dawn was yet no more than a faint promise, and a lamp was lit inside his tent.
The girl Anita, mumbler though she usually was, had been proven the most reliable oracle that Dun-can had yet been able to conscript. With Duncan’s chief wizard Gray now standing at her shoulder, she sat in a chair opposite Duncan’s, herbreathing deep and slow and her eyes fixed somewhere over the Western commander’s shoulder.
“Anita.” Duncan’s voice was insistently reasonable. “Why should we march into the north?” The map of the continent, spread out in his mind’s eye, could give no reason, except possibly to confuse the enemy. Nothing lay to his north but a thousand kilometers of wasteland. To Duncan it seemed likely that some enemy power was working through the seeress now despite Gray’s precautions, trying to lead them into a trap.
Anita answered: “To win the war. More I must not tell you at this time.” The voice was the girl’s own, which was unusual for one possessed by a power; and this sudden cool assumption of authority was startling, whoever the power might be.
Duncan’s head lifted. “Are you Ardneh?” he asked sharply.
“I am,” said the girl, looking at him with an empress’ manner. When herself, she was too shy to meet his eyes for long.
Behind the girl’s chair, tall Gray turned startled eyes to meet Duncan’s, then slowly nodded: in his opinion it was Ardneh. For the moment Duncan could say nothing. Ardneh had never made contact with him before, but Duncan had pondered long, trying to decide what course he should take when the meeting did take place, as seemed inevitable. He had come to no decision, but now he must; what attitude should he -and, in effect, the entire human West-take with regard to the being who called himself Ardneh?
It was very quiet inside the tent. The army lay, to protect it against discovery by spying reptiles during the day, within a forest of high-crowned trees. Duncan could now hear the small creatures that dwelt in the branches above his tent, beginning their stirrings of the day.
Ardneh was unique. No wizard of West or East could understand him. He was subtle, but the power… In the struggle with Zapranoth, the very mountains had been cracked. That much Duncan had seen for himself, afterward. It was as if the obscure Old World quotation were true indeed, that some put into Ardneh’s mouth: I am Ardneh, who rides the Elephant, who wields the lightning, who rends fortifications as the rushing passage of time consumes cheap cloth…
But could the West take this unidentified power as unquestioned leader, king and Lord?
Duncan arose and moved to the doorway of his tent, a moderately tall young man with sunbleached long hair and a face that worry and weather had made look older than it was. Moving outside, he ignored, because he was not conscious of it, the salute of the runner waiting before his tent, who sprang up ready for duty. The camp, almost soundless and invisible in the pre-dawn dark, stretched unseen before Duncan.
Now, on Ardneh’s unexplained -wish, order, whateveryou wanted to call it -he was supposed to swing his whole army north, a move for which there seemed to be no military justification. No, there could be no thought of making such a move on trust.
Duncan spun and re-entered the tent. Facing the girl who was still in trance, he snapped: “What will happen if I do not move the army as you say?”
Without hesitation Anita replied: “You will lose the war.”
“How am I to know that you are to be trusted?”
“By its fruit the tree is known.” Duncan grunted. He thought a moment more, then barked orders to his wizards, directing them to prepare alternate means of divination. He watched while they roused the girl from trance, and remembered to say a kind word to her as she was taken out, flustered, shy, and unremembering. Then he called for and quickly ate a hearty breakfast, meanwhile hearing reports brought in by birds just in from their night’s scouting.
The daylight was not yet full when Duncan left his tent again to stride out through the sprawling camp. He passed among rows of quiet tents, and of men and women sleeping cloak-wrapped on the earth. Some were up and about, readying food for the morning meal, repairing gear, cleaning, washing, inventorying, sharing out supplies. Up in the trees, if you looked for them, the returned birds were visible, brownish gray and shapeless, hiding heads and eyes against the glare of day.
Now the rows of tents were left behind. Passing a sentry who informally nodded to him in recognition, Duncan entered denser forest. Soon he had reached gloomy thickets through which the eye could scarcely find a pathway. But now as Duncan continued to step forward one bush or another bent itself aside for him. he kept unhesitatingly to the path thus indicated. He had come some fifty paces past the last human sentry before he got a direct look at his pathmaker: a forest elemental, almost tree-like in appearance, raised great gnarled limbs at some distance to Duncan’s left. It was guiding him in turns and doublings, supposedly preventing the approach of any unfriendly power.
At length the parting of a final screen of bushes disclosed before him a wide, still glade. In the middle of the glade there stood three men, or at any rate three tall forms, seemingly garbed more in darkness and in light than in any human-woven cloth. They were his three chief wizards, Duncan knew, but which of them was which he could not have guessed. The three turned simultaneously to face the Prince as he stepped out of the bush.
He could not see their faces clearly and did not try. As had been prearranged, in a loud voice he demanded: “Ardneh, Ardneh, Ardneh! Who is he? What is he? Will it be to my advantage to trust his word, to heed his will, to follow where he leads?”
One magician threw back his head, cowled and faceless, and replied: “If we do not trust and heed and follow him, I see the end of the war.”
“That has a hopeful sound.”
“The end of war, the backs of Western men bent hopelessly under the Eastern lash, their babies slain, their women and their lands despoiled. That is the future I see if we reject the power called Ardneh now.”The faceless speaker bowed his head.
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