TWO hours before dawn the dreams of Kasimir were disturbed by a soft noise at the tent wall no more than a sword’s length from his head. The noise was the distinctive purring, gently snarling sound made by a sharp blade slitting the tough fabric.
Once this sound had been identified somewhere inside the unsleeping portion of Kasimir’s brain, the remnants of his dream-a strange adventure involving the gods of the desert, and enormous distances of space and time-went flying off in tatters. Still, complete wakefulness did not come at once. With his eyes open to the partial darkness inside the tent, he saw by the filtering moonlight a figure moving silently. This figure had come in through the tent wall and gone out again by the same route before he who observed it was fully awake. But Kasimir had no doubt that he had seen it, a man’s form, looking as slender and dangerous as a scorpion, clad in dark, tight-fitting clothes, face wrapped for concealment. Nor had he any doubt, when this apparition went gliding smoothly out through the wall of the tent again, that it was carrying a long bundle wrapped in rough cloth, held tightly under its right arm.
Kasimir sat up straight. He was alone in the tent now. No one else was sleeping in it tonight. Though it was quite large, much of the space inside was taken up by the more valuable portions of the caravan’s cargo.
The intruder certainly hadn’t been Prince al-Farabi, leader of the caravan. Nor was Kasimir able to identify that mysterious form as any of the Prince’s followers who had been traveling with him across the desert. Then who-?
Almost fully awake at last, Kasimir leaped to his feet. Just at that moment an outcry of alarm was sounded at no great distance outside the tent. He dashed for the door but it was tied loosely shut, as was usual at night, and undoing the knots delayed him briefly.
Hardly had he got out into the open air before he collided with a figure running toward the tent.
“Thieves!” the other man shouted, right in Kasimir’s face. “Robbers! Awake! Arouse and arm yourselves!”
Judging by the growing uproar, the other thirty or forty occupants of the camp were already doing just that. Other voices were shouting alarm from the perimeter. Men poured out of the half-dozen sleeping tents, and weapons flashed in the light of rising flames. Smoldering cook fires and watch fires were being quickly rekindled. Lieutenant Komi, second-in-command to the Prince during this journey, trotted past Kasimir, barking orders to his men. And now, in the middle of all this half-controlled turmoil, strode the Prince himself with his robes flying behind him. Al-Farabi was tall and dark and at the moment a menacing figure with scimitar in hand. He was demanding to know where the alarm had started.
Kasimir confronted him. “Prince, an intruder was in the cargo tent, where I was sleeping! He came through the wall. I-I wasn’t in time to stop him-”
“What?” In a moment Prince al-Farabi had sprung to the side of the tent where the cloth had been slit. This was on the side opposite from the normal entrance, whose flap was now hanging open after Kasimir’s exit. In the fabric of the tent’s rear wall, Kasimir saw now, were two vertical slits, one right beside the other, only a couple of hand spans apart. Of course, it must have been their cutting that had awakened him.
The Prince stepped into the tent through the largest of these rents, which was a full meter long.
Peering in through the same aperture, Kasimir saw, by the torchlight that glowed in through the walls, the tall man bending over the heap of baggage that occupied the center of the tent’s interior. For a few moments the Prince tossed things about, obviously in search of something. Then al-Farabi straightened up to his full height, giving a great wordless cry as of bereavement.
Kasimir followed the Prince into the tent through its new entrance. “Sir, what’s wrong?”
“It is gone.” The face al-Farabi turned to the younger man was ghastly in the muted glow of firelight entering the tent from outside. The Prince appeared to be swaying on his feet. Almost shouting, he repeated: “It is gone!”
“I saw a man inside the tent with me when I woke up,” Kasimir stammered, repeating the little information he could give. “He went out carrying a long bundle under one arm. I started to give the alarm but by then he was already gone.”
Groaning unintelligibly, the Prince stumbled past Kasimir and out of the tent through its normal doorway. Again Kasimir followed.
Shouts coming from guards at the perimeter of the camp now reassured everyone that the animals were well and none of them had been stolen. But a moment later a new alarm was sounded. One of the guards, who had been posted nearest to the tent where Kasimir slept, had just been discovered lying motionless in the sand.
“Bring him here beside the fire!” Kasimir ordered sharply. “And one of you fetch my kit from the tent.” It was the automatic reaction of a trained physician to a medical emergency. In a moment three men came carrying the fallen one, and laid him down on clean sand in the firelight.
The physician went to work. He found that the victim was certainly alive, and a preliminary examination disclosed no sign of serious injury. Kasimir hardly had a chance to begin a more detailed investigation when the man began to stir and grimace, moaning and rubbing the back of his head.
“Someone must have struck me down from behind,” the young tribesman murmured weakly, trying to sit up.
“Sit still.” Kasimir’s exploring fingers found no blood, or even any noticeable lump. “All right, I suppose you’ll live. Doubtless the hood of your robe saved you from worse damage.”
Aware that the Prince had approached again and was standing beside him, Kasimir turned to repeat this favorable report. But then the young physician let the words die on his lips. The tall figure of al-Farabi, wild-eyed, stood gesturing with both arms in the burgeoning firelight. “The Sword is gone!” the Prince shouted in a despairing voice. It was as if the full enormity of his loss was still growing on him. “The treasure has disappeared!”
While others gathered around, Kasimir stood up from beside the fallen guard and moved still closer to the desert chieftain. In a voice that tried to be soothing he asked: “You mentioned a sword, sir. But how valuable was it? I had no idea that we were carrying any-”
“Of course you had no idea! Of course!” The tall man cast back his hood and pulled his hair. “The presence of Stonecutter was intended to be a secret.”
“The presence of-”
“Of a Sword, the Sword of Siege itself! A priceless weapon! It was loaned to me by my trusting friend Prince Mark. And now it is gone. Argh! May all the gods and demons of the desert descend upon me and snuff out my worthless life!”
“The Sword of Siege,” breathed Kasimir. “It is one of the Twelve, then.” And suddenly the extreme dismay of the Prince was understandable.
Practically everyone in the world knew of the Twelve Swords, though comparatively few people had ever seen one of them. They were legendary weapons, for all that they were very real. They had been forged by the god Vulcan himself more than thirty years ago, in the days before the gods-or most of them at least-had disappeared.
Kasimir wanted to ask how the Sword of Siege had come to be traveling with them, in this rather ordinary little caravan-but that was not properly any of his business. Instead he asked: “Is it possible to overtake the thief?”
“Already I have sent some of my swiftest riders in pursuit,” said al-Farabi, who was now standing with his face buried in his hands, while his own people gathered round him in dumb awe. “But to find and follow a trail at night … we will of course do all that we can, but I fear that the Sword is gone. Oh, woe is me!”
While Kasimir and others watched him helplessly, the desolation of the Prince became more intense and at the same time more theatrical. He tore at his hair and his garments, saying: “How will I ever be able to face Prince Mark again? What can I tell him? Even the worth of all my flocks and all my lands would scarcely afford him adequate compensation.”
“Prince Mark?” Kasimir could think of nothing more intelligent to say at the moment; still, he felt that it was up to him to reply. All of the Prince’s own people who were watching looked slightly embarrassed, and he had the impression that al-Farabi’s outburst of grief was increasingly directed toward him.