Chup cried out: “Ah, for a score of men to charge them now!” But to charge and fight in the heart of the storm would be to put oneself under the same disadvantage as the enemy, and he knew full well the impulse had to be restrained. Mewick instead used the time gained to best advantage by getting his few men once more between Rolf and the disorganized foe. The reptiles, hit harder than any land creatures by the elemental’s blasts, were swept from the sky for the time being, and Mewick found a place against the steep side of a sheer jutting rock, where his men might hope to remain unobserved should the reptiles manage to come back, and from which they might sally out to sting the Constable again if and when he came on in pursuit of Rolf.
Chup huddled with the others between sheltering rocks, muffling his face with his cloak against the sand. Once more Loford groaned. “Now they too are getting help from greater powers,” he muttered.
The wind died suddenly, rose again, then came and went in fitful gusts. Squinting into the sky above the enemy, Chup could see that the Eastern wizard had at last been able to call upon some effective force. The elemental was broken into a multitude of smaller whirlwinds, each of which raised a cloud of sand and dust, but which taken all together lacked the purpose and power that the single great creature had possessed. He could see, too, that Loford had not abandoned the struggle. The numerous whirlwinds danced around a common center, and seemed to be striving continually to reunite.
“The wind is no longer so bad we cannot walk or ride,” Mewick shouted to his men, making himself heard above the shrieking air. “Let us see if we can strike another blow!”
Abner had lost two men to the elemental, one blinded permanently by sand, the other left crazed and unable to do more than whimper to himself. It was midday before he had his forces properly marshalled again, the hopelessly wounded disposed of and their riding-beasts and other useful property distributed among the well. The wind was now no worse than a bearable storm. He considered dividing his force, feeling reasonably confident that there was no superior enemy body anywhere near, but decided against it when his wizard assured him that the winds must continue to decline.
The Constable cast a final look at his assembled force (the woman Charmian, dressed like a soldier and muffled against sand like the others, smiled bravely and admiringly at him; well, he couldn’t have left her at the caravanserai, there was no telling when he’d be able to go back) and got it moving forward again. Scarcely had they gone a kilometer, however, when there came a few more arrows down upon them, from a hilltop close ahead. One more man was hit. At the Constable’s order forty cavalry charged the hill with leveled lances, but its top was now deserted, and behind it several ravines offered concealment for a small force and the possibility of further ambushes. The Constable’s horn sounded a recall.
Again they moved on to the northwest. The first reptile able to return to the column, between disabling wind-blasts, reported flatter, grassier country ahead, into which the two fleeing Westerners were making steady progress, while the seven others remained between the fleeing two and Abner. The Constable consulted his weary wizard, who confirmed him in his opinion that the two more distant fugitives had the huge important gem with them. The Constable ground his teeth and profaned the names of demons in his anger. He felt by no means certain of getting back the gem. Though the long hours of a summer afternoon still lay ahead, the sun had by now definitely passed its highest point.
There now arrived a reptile-courier from the Emperor of the East himself, who was with his main armies in the field a good many kilometers to the south. The courier bore an answer to the Constable’s urgent dispatch of the early morning, informing the court that an object had been stolen similar to, but even larger than, that which had been used in the unsuccessful attempt to neutralize Ardneh. The answer from Ominor now was that the object was certainly of great importance, and the Constable must take personal command of the attempt to get it back. Also that he must conduct his search to the northwest -divination at the highest level gave assurance that the thing was being taken in that direction. Also, that reinforcements were being sent as quickly as possible to the Constable’s aid. The first of these, a flight of a hundred additional reptiles, began to arrive shortly after the courier.
The West, too, Abner thought sourly, would doubtless be throwing in reinforcements, and there would come a hundred more birds to harass him through the night. As the reptiles came in, he sent them to scour the country far ahead, to try to discover where the fugitives were heading.
Half an hour’s steady forward progress followed, before one of the scouting reptiles came screaming that the small Western force was drawing up in a line on a hilltop directly in their line of march.
“Seven men? I wish they would make such a stand.”
When he had got a little closer and could better see the hill, he realized the Western maneuver was not so foolish as it had sounded. The slope was very wide from left to right, and too steep for mounted men to charge up it at any speed in the loose sand. Once more they would take casualties from arrows and find the foe gone when they reached the top. But to go clear around the hill would let the enemy succeed in delaying them, without paying anything for the privilege… Abner quickly decided to spread his men out and charge the hill. He would accept two or three casualties to inflict one; he would be delayed little if at all; and there was always the chance the fools would stand and fight.
The skirmish went about as he had expected, except that the Western arrows came down a little more thickly than he had hoped, so Abner left four men upon the slope. And when the crest was reached, the foe was gone, except for one who lay in the sand with the shaft of an Eastern arrow protruding from his head.
At any rate the country from here on was definitely flatter; the harassing enemy would have to remain at a greater distance. He could see the six riders on a distant rise, as if beckoning him to follow. Above them (at a safe altitude) many reptiles were cawing loudly and circling in the sky; but his wizard motioned in a slightly different direction, and in that way Abner directed his troops.
The hours of light remaining were still long, but inexorably growing shorter. Some of the reptiles sent to scout far ahead of the two fugitives began to return, saying they could find no settlements, no buildings, nothing that looked as if it might be the fugitives’ goal. Grass grew tall and thick in that land, the reptiles reported, and trees in ever-increasing numbers. There were many places where the two-legged beasts could go to earth once darkness had fallen, and finding them again in the morning might not be easy. How far ahead were the fugitives now? Several kilometers. It was hard to say exactly; the reptiles’ horizontal-distance sense, like that of the birds, was poor.
Abner moved his troops at a hard pace, though both men and animals were weary. He had the feeling he was gaining. No more hills obtruded themselves to give the six skirmishers another place to make a stand. They kept half a kilometer ahead of Abner in the open country, and seemed for the time being powerless to do more.
Just when it seemed that the day was going reasonably well after all, there sprang up another wind from dead ahead, erecting another wall of dust whose sudden creation bespoke the working of more Western magic. But this wind brought little pain to sore Eastern faces; it was far weaker (or perhaps more subtle) than the desert-elemental had been. This had been born in the sea of grass that lay ahead, beyond the desert. It did not blind and abrade with particles or threaten to kill with heat.
Abner’s wizard was hard at work in his saddle once more, gesturing with a talisman of some kind in each hand. Whether he was having any success was hard to judge; the wind appeared about the same, able to do no obvious harm. The Constable tried to recall the characteristics of prairie-elementals, which he assumed this was. He seemed to remember that bleakness and tangled grass and natural wind were three components, but there was something else too, something he could not quite remember. His schooling in this branch of magic had been sketchy, and was now far in the past.