They had left the desert behind them, and were struggling through the first of the grasslands, when he remembered the most pertinent characteristic of prairie-elementals: distance itself.
His eyes told him what was happening, now that he thought to look closely for it. Beneath the feet of his riding-beast, and those of the other animals in his troop, the grassy land was elongating in the direction of their travel, like an optical illusion in reverse. Three steps forward were required to cover the real distance normally contained in two.
With a shout the Constable called his magician to his side, dragged the wretch from his saddle, and beat him half a dozen vicious blows with the flat of his sword. “Blunderer! Traitor! Could you not tell me what was happening? Or are you too thick-witted to be aware of it yourself?” He yearned to strike with the working edge of the blade, but was not ready to leave himself effectively wizardless in the face of the enemy.
“Ah, mercy, Lord!” the beaten wizard cried. “There be powers against me here such as I have never faced before.”
Charmian had ridden forward from her place near the rear of the little column, and seeing that the Constable glanced at her but did not at once order her back, was emboldened to take part. To the unhappy wizard she said savagely: “One fat lout from the provinces opposes you, a man I have met before and know to be nearly devoid of skill, compared to what my Lord Constable’s wizard should possess. My Lord Constable is ill-served indeed.”
“I tell you I am blameless,” the magician cried. He had fallen on his knees before the mounted Constable, while behind them the column halted.
“Who has defeated you? What mighty power?” the Constable demanded. “If you cannot tell me even that much, why should I not take you for a traitor, or an imbecile incompetent?”
“I know not what or who!” The magician’s eyes were wild. “I knew not even that I was being beaten, until your mighty Lordship struck at me, as-as indeed I must be grateful for, that I was not slain out of hand.”
Charmian’s expression had changed as she listened, and now she put out a hand to Abner. “Wait, my good Lord, if it please you. There may be something to what this man says. There is one among our enemies who is subtle and powerful enough to confound most wizards in this way.”
“So.” Abner’s rage was quickly transformed into calculation. He knew by now that Charmian was intelligent, or rather that she could be when it suited her; and she had come close to Ardneh in the past. “What more can you tell me on this point?”
She looked at Abner with an apparent anxiety to please. “Little enough right now, my Lord. Let me talk with this fellow for a while, as we go on, and it may be I can learn something worth your hearing.”
“So be it.” With a savage gesture Abner got the stalled column moving again-two-thirds speed was better than none-and then, grimacing, he got paper from his saddlebag and reluctantly prepared to send a message asking Wood for help.
Charmian now had perfect reason for riding next to the wizard, and holding with him a lengthy whispered conversation of which no one else could hear a word.
“So, fellow,” she began, in a tone remote and commanding. “I have saved you from the punishment your clumsiness merits. If you wish me to remain your friend, there is a simple thing you can do for me in return.”
He looked at her with fear and calculation. “I am eternally in your debt, fair lady. What is there I can possibly do for you?”
“It might seem unimportant to my Lord the Constable, and I have not bothered him with it. But it is a meaningful matter to me.” She began to explain.
She had not said much before the wizard was shaking his head, and holding up a finger to stop her speech. “No, no. If it were possible to cast a spell and bring down some disabling woe on those two fleeing from us, I would have done so long ere this. It was one of the first things the Constable asked of me, before taking the field in pursuit of them. But it cannot be done so simply. Conditions are not right in many ways – ”
“I care little or nothing about harming the man,” Charmian broke in. “It is the girl, Catherine, who betrayed me.” Her voice dropped lower still, hate tightening it like some rack-rope in a dungeon. “It was she who got them to manhandle me. I saw her smirking, gloating, overherlittle moment of revenge… well, I mean to have the last laugh over her. I must and I will. Find me a way to give me my revenge upon that girl, and I will reward you well.” She shifted her body in the saddle and saw his eyes go wandering over her, as if they had no choice but to do so when she willed it. “But fail to do so, and I will tell the Constable that which will bring his full wrath back upon you; it hangs balanced over your head already, and needs but a gentle touch to bring it down. I will say that it was not Ardneh at all who defeated you, but some trivial power.”
“It was Ardneh, or his equal. It must have been.”
Charmian did not appear to have heard.
The magician -he was using no name at all at present, a procedure not unheard of among those of his calling – rode on in silence for a little time, sizing up with sidelong looks the woman who rode beside him, taking her measure in more ways than one. “No, no,” he said again. “From here there is no way that I can visit on this fleeing servant girl the tortures that you have in mind. We have no hair of hers, or nail clippings, or even anything she owned -hey? I thought not. Even a comparatively mild curse would take -no, there is no way.”
But Charmian was quick to catch him up. “Would take what?”
The nameless magician evidently regretted starting to say whatever it was that he had left unfinished. How could he have made such a clumsy slip?
“Disagreeable fool, you are going to have to tell me sooner or later.”
Imagine a vast buried sea of power, into which a man might hope to sink a secret well, not in safety, but still with reasonable hope of not being caught in a disaster, because he and a few others had managed to do it successfully a few times in the past. The Nameless One pondered briefly and fatalistically the secret syllables of a Name forbidden to be spoken. Wood knew that name, and Ominor of course, and four or five others in the highest councils of the East. It was seldom even alluded to -the Nameless One had heard Wood do so only once, on the day of Ardneh’s visit to the capital.
Charmian prodded him: “It would seem to be a worthless power, or whatever it is, if it cannot be used.” And again: “Remember, I meant what I said, both my promise and my threat.”
The Nameless One believed her. “All right, then. We will see. I will try what can be tried.”
Throughout the remainder of the day, the Constable gained upon his prey, but not enough. As sunset came, the wind abated and the prairie-elemental died; but the night belonged to the West, and Abner reluctantly gave orders to make camp and set a vigilant guard.
Rolf was saying: “You told me yourself that your Offshore man is likely wedded by now to someone else. What does it matter, then, if you should come and sit by me?
It was morning again, the second since theirflight had begun. The bird had gone into hiding for the day in a nearby tree, where he-or she, Rolf was not sure-was now practically invisible. Since talking with the bird, Catherine and Rolf had slept a little, and had drunk their fill of fresh running water.
She looked at him now with what was almost a smile. “Is it some military matter you wish to discuss?” Catherine had been kneeling on the stream’s grassy bank trying to see her face in the water below. The swelling on her cheekbone had gone down, but the discoloration was if anything worse than before, mottling from purple into green.
“Well…” He spread his hands. “We could begin with military secrets. You are at least four meters away, and to shout them across such a space would put them in danger of being overheard by the enemy.” He looked up and around him with a great show of wariness. Catherine almost laughed.
They were in a little grove cut through by the stream. Looking out of the shade of the trees Rolf could see in all directions, fields and gentle hills of grass dotted here and there with other copses or single trees. It might be the patchy remnants of a receding forest or the struggling outposts of a new one.
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