At last the walls of Sarykam and the towers of the Palace dropped permanently out of sight among the folds of the mountainous landscape. The journey still proceeded along well-kept roads, past neat villages whose inhabitants more often than not came out to wave. The border was still ahead.
But it was not very far ahead. Tasavalta was not, in terms of geographical area, a very large domain.
Now Mark looked back over his other shoulder. Three or four meters behind him, mounted on the biggest and strongest riding-beast that could be found in Sarykam, an animal of truly heroic strength and dimensions, was Ben of Purkinje.
As soon as Prince Mark caught his eye, Ben urged his mount forward and rode at the Prince’s side.
Mark said, in a low voice and with feeling: “Truly, I am glad that you are coming with us.”
Ben shrugged his shoulders, beside which Mark’s looked thin. “And I am glad to be here, for more reasons than one.” He sighed faintly. “Barbara grows a little more shrewish with each passing year.”
“I suppose that she still nags you about giving me the Sword?” Mark tapped the hilt of Shieldbreaker at his side. He too had known Barbara for a long time.
“About that, and several other things. So I’m glad enough for the chance to ride out of the city for a time. Besides, I grow fat and immobile sitting there in my office, trying to look to the clerks as if I know what I am doing.”
“Or sometimes trying to look as if you didn’t…. I have no doubt, my friend, that you know what you are doing, in your office or elsewhere. I don’t suppose that any last bits of useful information reached your ears before we departed?”
“This morning? No.” Ben shook his head. “Were you expecting something in particular?”
Mark gestured. “I hardly know, myself, what I am expecting. Perhaps some news of one of the other Swords.”
Ben cuffed at a fly on his mount’s neck. “There’s been nothing really new about any of them since we heard from that fellow Birch about two years ago.”
Mark remembered the fellow called Birch. A poor man, he had come to the rulers of Tasavalta saying he was breaking a long silence and hoping to be rewarded now for his information. Birch’s report had been to the effect that once, years even before the battle of Tashigang, the god Vulcan had been seen, by Birch himself, with the Sword Farslayer in hand. Birch even claimed to have seen Vulcan kill Mars with it; in that claim both Mark and Ben were inclined to believe him. But there were no other witnesses to the Wargod’s death, or at least none had come forward.
Another minute or so passed in silence, except for the sounds of moving animals, and a faint, contented crooning from Adrian. Then Mark said: “Doomgiver and Townsaver are gone.” The statement sounded like what it was: the hundred-and-first rehearsal of the first condition of a puzzle or a riddle, which in a hundred trials still had not been solved-and to which, for all the puzzlers knew, no final answer existed.
Ben nodded. “Both destroyed by Shieldbreaker, in Vulcan’s hand. No doubt about that, for either of them. And Shieldbreaker, thank Ardneh, now rides there at your side. Stonecutter’s safe in our deepest vault at home. And tricky Coinspinner’s vanished from the same place, gone we don’t know where.”
“That’s five of the twelve more or less accounted for.”
“Yes. Leaving seven more. Where Farslayer is now, we just don’t know. And Woundhealer lies on this road ahead of us, or so we fondly hope.”
“Right. And Hermes once took Dragonslicer from my hand, and as far as we’ve been able to find out, no human eye has seen it since.”
“And Hermes, a moment after taking Dragonslicer from you, also seized Wayfinder from Baron Doon …”
“… so Hermes ought to have been carrying those two Swords when Farslayer struck him down. But none of the three blades were there when you and I came upon his corpse. D’you know, Mark, I’ve wondered about that. I mean, maybe Farslayer wouldn’t have killed him if he hadn’t been carrying the other two Swords with him when he was struck. Three Swords at one time! I’ve touched two of ’em at one time, and so have you. You know how it is.”
Mark was shaking his head doubtfully. “You think just touching three Swords would be too much for a god?”
“Hermes wasn’t the god who forged them.”
“Even so, I think it damned unlikely that he was just overwhelmed by magic. No, I think the simple truth is that Farslayer killed Hermes, regardless of any other Swords, just as we both thought when we found him dead. As the Sword of Vengeance could kill anyone else in the world, god or human being.”
“I don’t suppose it killed all of the gods.”
“No. Not most of them.” Again Mark rode for a time in silence before he added: “I think that their time was simply over.”
“That’s not really an explanation.”
But now Mark had turned his head and was looking at his son. The small boy had appeared briefly to be listening to the men’s conversation. But now Adrian had tired and wanted to be carried, mewling almost like an infant and holding out his arms toward his father’s voice.
Mark picked him up and held him briefly before his own saddle. Presently that grew awkward too, and the march was halted while the litter could be unlimbered and put together. The people handling the assembly had not yet performed the task frequently enough to be accustomed to it, and the process seemed, to Mark, endlessly slow.
Eventually the litter was ready, and the procession could forge on.
EVEN as Zoltan watched, the reflection of dark hair, in an eddy where the surface of the stream was almost still, turned into an image of black twigs and branches.
He raised his head; there were the branches, part of a dead bush on the other side of the stream, as real as any objects could be. But no, something was wrong. The color of the vision in the water had been slightly different. And he had seen white skin, too. Hadn’t he?
Zoltan jumped to his feet and waded in without bothering to remove his boots, keeping his gaze fixed on the reflected twigs. He reached the other bank in half a dozen splashing strides.
He bent over the leafless bush and examined it closely. What must have happened was that she had been hiding in the other bushes just here, and had leaned out …
He plunged into the streamside vegetation, searching diligently, ignoring the thorns that clawed at him. But he looked in vain for a clue that anyone had ever hidden there.
Zoltan was about to wade back to the other bank and reclaim Swordface when a changed note in the burble of the water downstream caught his ear. For the space of many heartbeats he stood motionless, listening. It had sounded like a trilling laugh….
He started downstream along the bank, on foot, then made himself go back and get his riding-beast. He stroked the animal’s head to keep it quiet. Here near the south bank there was almost a pathway, a game trail of some kind, Zoltan supposed. He had now come beyond the area where the marks of recent cavalry patrols had obliterated all other trails.
The path beside the stream grew easier, and he mounted Swordface again and rode. Before he had ridden fifty meters he arrived at another pool. This one looked deeper, and its depths were even more clear.
Something else caught Zoltan’s eye. A few long, dark hairs were caught on a rough bush at one side of the pool. Zoltan dismounted and picked the delicate filaments from the bush. He stood mere running them through his trembling fingers; the repeated touch of his hands made the hairs turn into threads of common spider web and vanish.
Enchantment. If only At a sound he spun around. This time he caught a glimpse of movement along the water’s edge, thirty or forty meters downstream, as of pale flesh again, and some tight, silvery garment. This time he did not really see her hair that clearly- what he saw next was more like a pure burst of sunlight, as it might leap back from moving water.
Unthinkingly he shouted: “Come back! I won’t hurt you!”
No answer. She was gone. There was a faint sound from somewhere even farther downstream.
He swore and splashed and waded. Then he went back to get Swordface again.
The next rapids were steeper, and the path descending beside them was so steep that Zoltan had no choice but to dismount and lead the riding-beast along.
Presently he was forced to leave the animal behind him, tethered lightly to a bush. The way down through the little rocky gorge had simply become too precipitous. It was easy