A second spoke: “Lord Duncan, if we do trust the power called Ardneh now, I see no swift end to the war. I cannot see an end at all.”
“Bah! All things in this world have an end. Still, better an augury of uncertainty than one of doom. What else?”
The second wizard continued: “I see that fearful things must fall upon our people, if we heed the call that Ardneh sends today.”
He who had spoken first to Duncan raised his head again at that, and said: “You do not tell what all of us must see, that fearful things must fall upon us, soon, whatever the good Prince chooses.”
Duncan put in, impatiently: “It is war, and we all know what that short word means. Can you add to it aught of fear that we have yet to learn?”
And the second seer: “This much; I see Ardneh -not clearly, but I know that it is he – caught in the grip of some power of evil stronger than he is, caught and dying whilst our army flees from trying to help. This the result if we listen to him now, accept his leadership. If we do not, I cannot see his death, or even the appearance of this enemy of incredible strength.”
The two magicians who had so far spoken fell silent now, looking at Duncan, then turning to follow the direction of his eyes with their own.
The third wizard, who seemed now to stand the tallest, broke his silence. “Lord Duncan, it is all true, what both of them have told you. If we accept the leadership of Ardneh, I see Ardneh ringed about with enemies and dying, and I see you despairing in retreat. And then… that vision ends in some great violence. If we do not accept and follow Ardneh, the vision is even clearer, and, at least to me, even more terrible. For in it the West and all it stands for is no more…”
“Hold!” Duncan commanded. “All of you! If by your arts you can see these things, must not Ardneh be able to see them too?”
The three conferred together, whispering. Then the first replied: “It would seem to be not beyond his powers.”
“Well, then, if he is truly on our side…”Duncan lost the thread of what he had meant to say. Perhaps he was distracted by the way the three faceless wizards were now all turned toward him with a certain new tension in their postures, as if they had suddenly seen something new and peculiar about him.
It occurred to him also that he should take more time to think about the patrols he had routinely scattered in all directions to see what… no, especially he must consider those working far to the north and… actually, one patrol in particular required some thought. One of the men in it was a black-haired youth, short but strong-looking, named Rolf or something like that. Yes, perhaps he had heard of this Rolf before -some matter connected with technology. Ardneh might well now want this Rolf to do something technological again, since whatever it was before had worked out so well.
As Duncan thought further he seemed to see deeper into the matter. It came to him, as a remembered secret that should be shared with few or none, that this new technological mission forwhich Rolf (and the patrol that included Rolf) should be diverted would probably involve a certain object black as shiny ebony, a somehow gem-like thing about the same size as a man’s clenched fist. Ardneh had probably handled a similar thing recently, seen and handled such a thing for the first time, and in the course of that handling had obtained a clue as to the existence and whereabouts of this larger and vastly more valuable one, the true worth of which was not yet appreciated by any human being. It was now in the possession of some adherent of the East, somewhere in a northern desert where the patrol of which Rolf was a member, if they were fast enough and lucky enough, might be in time to intercept…
So smoothly and with such seeming Tightness did this train of thought flow through Prince Duncan’s mind, that only after it had progressed thus far did he awake to the fact that it was bringing him new knowledge, that it must have its origin in some mind other than his own.
Ardneh? he demanded, silently, but with a concentrated urgency of thought that was the equivalent of a shout. There was no answer, save that the flow of ideas about the gem-like thing, whose existence he had never before suspected, broke off.
Ardneh, you cannot manage me that way. I will not be controlled. But even as his challenging thought went forth he knew that no effort had been made to control him. He had only been taken partly into Ardneh’s confidence.
The air within the glade had cleared. The wizards once again had faces, and were pressing round him anxiously.”… Lord Duncan, Prince,”tall Gray was repeatedly demanding. When he saw that Duncan was aware of him, he added: “He came to you directly. Prince, did you not feel his weight?”
“Yes, yes. Now I have felt him. Listened to him. Whether I believe him is still another question.”
They pressed him for more information but there was little more that he could tell; Ardneh was still a mystery. He led the others back to the camp, where he plunged alone into his tent for a time to argue with himself amid maps, reports, intelligence estimates. There were strong arguments on both sides, but already in his heart he was more than half convinced that soon he would be moving the army north.
Full summer had come, and Abner, High Constable of the East, with the dust of hard journeying upon his clothes, sweltered standing in the small room high under the sun-beaten roof of the caravanserai. Around him a few quick and silent servants hurried, nimbly adjusting their movements in the cramped quarters to the Constable’s bulky, careless presence. Dust raised by hasty efforts at cleaning still hung visible before the small, high windows in the prison-like walls. The servants were unpacking things and moving the Constable in with practiced efficiency, while he looked around him with distaste. The place had looked more inviting from the outside. It would have been better, the Constable was thinking now, to have camped in the open again; his escort was strong enough to have nothing to fear from bandits, and there could be no sizable Western force in the area. But his companion had wanted to spend a night or two indoors, and to humor her he had agreed.
Of course he could change his orders and move out again, but he had had a weary day in the saddle and was not minded to wait longer for his bath and such pleasures as the evening might afford. So let it be. In the next room of his little suite, which was of course the least dilapidated of the establishment, he could hear the buckets of bath-water already being carried in. Standing by a window and tall enough to peer down from it, he could see in the courtyard below how the weary loadbeasts of his retinue were being unloaded, watered, and bedded for the night.
The south wall of the courtyard below was pierced by a single central gate, the only way in or out. On the other three sides were buildings, all the same three-story height. The building the Constable stood in, and the one opposite, were divided into small apartments and barrack-like chambers, the ground floors usable interchangeably by animals or by humans of the lower classes. The building that formed the third side of the enclosure, opposite the gate, contained a tavern, a brothel, a store, and the small quarters of the Master of the Station and his few permanent guards. All the buildings had windows only on their inner sides, facing the central square, and in their outer walls mere arrow-slits.
Probably a couple of hundred people were now inside the walls, two-thirds of them in the Constable’s retinue. Nor had they seen another living human during the last two days. This remote region of the continent seemed to have been forsaken even by the war. Here and there moved roving bands of outcasts, deserters from East and West. But as for Duncan, his maneuverings, like Ominor’s, were many kilometers to the south.
The Emperor of the East had assumed command of his own armies in the field, freeing his Constable for another mission, that of learning about Ardneh. The magicians had failed miserably. Abner had the Emperor’s trust, as much as anyone could be said to have it. He was journeying widely in this desolate part of the country to interview people, mostly Eastern officers, who in the past in one way or another had had something to do with Ardneh. More such Eastern people were to be found here than anywhere else, because those who had survived a struggle with Ardneh-inspired forces tended to be under a cloud of failure, and those whose failures were deemed mild tended to be assigned to remote places where nothing important depended on them. Those whose failures were thought grave by Ominor were seldom in any condition to be interviewed.
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