At the leader’s right hand rode a woman dressed chiefly in animal skins, and whose face and body were painted in ways that suggested she must be some kind of a minor enchantress. That she was not a magician of overwhelming skill could be deduced from the obvious way that her youth-spells struggled with the years to preserve her own appearance.
From their hilltop these leaders looked out over a dozen buildings and an extensive compound, mostly garden, all centered on the white stone pyramid, at least ten stories tall, that was the Temple itself.
The enchantress was the first to speak. “The Sword, if it is there, is lightly guarded.”
The bulky man beside her turned his head. “Are you sure? Do your powers tell you that?” His voice was skeptical.
“My eyes tell me. I cannot be sure.”
“Then use your powers,” the man grumbled, “if you really have any. And make sure. As for eyes, I have two good ones of my own.”
“I have powers,” she flared, “and one day I’ll make sure that you respect them.”
He only grumbled again. Even that answer sounded as if it were merely as a matter of form. His attention had already moved back to the Temple, and the woman’s threat, if it had really been that, was disregarded totally.
The enchantress dismounted and got to work. From a bag she carried she extracted fine powders of various colors and blew them into the air in different directions, a pinch at a time, from her hardened and somewhat dirty palm. The men around watched curiously, but for a time no one had anything to say.
Presently the woman was able to promise the bulky man- who waited expressionlessly for her report-that the magical protection of the treasure he had come here to get would be trivial at best; she would be able to set it aside easily. “That last prisoner we sacrificed,” she assured him, “was a great help.”
The man beside her nodded calmly. He had really not expected much in the way of magical tricks and traps from the White Temple; nor much in the way of armed force, either. His only real worry on his way here to take the treasure had been that someone else might have beaten him to it.
Now he motioned to his other followers and raised his voice enough to be sure that they all heard him. “We’ll ride in, then. We will take what we want, but no more than that. And let there be no unnecessary killing or destruction.”
Hard-bitten lot that the troopers were, they received that last order without protest. Indeed, there came in response a murmur or two that sounded like approval. There were many people who considered any move against the White Temple to be unlucky. Those who still believed in gods-and what bandit did not, at least on occasion?-were vastly reluctant to risk making enemies of Draffut and of Ardneh.
The Temple people inside the compound, and those few who were outside near the front gate, noticed the approach of the bandits when the riders were still some distance off, but their entrance was unopposed. The two White Guards at the entrance retreated rapidly, not bothering to try to shut the gates.
Extending from just outside those gates into the foot of the pyramid itself, there stretched a line of people who had come here hoping to be healed-the sick and injured, some of them accompanied by their attendants.
With the last admonition of their leader still in mind, the intruders cut through this line almost courteously, giving the lame and the halt time to scramble out of their way. The
bandit column halted just inside the compound walls, where, at the sharp orders of their leader, its members dismounted and were rapidly deployed, some to guard their rear, a few to hold the animals. Most of them moved on foot against the pyramid.
The pyramid had one chief doorway, at ground level. Half of the small handful of White Guards who were now assembled in front of that doorway decided at once to take to their heels. The other half were not so wise, and the attackers’ weapons, already drawn, had to be used. Blood spilled on the white pavement and on the chalky stones of the pyramid itself.
The bandit leader and others went into the Temple, and shortly afterward another Sword was brought out of the small interior room where it had been enshrined. When the bandit leader had satisfied himself that the object he had just acquired was indeed the genuine one he had been expecting, he left it in the hands of his chief lieutenant-in the case of this particular Sword he was willing to do that-and turned his attention elsewhere.
The Sword that had been at the leader’s side when he arrived at the Temple had come out of its sheath, briefly, while the fight was on, though there had been no need for him to use it. Now it was again sheathed firmly at his side; this was one blade that he was not about to hand over to anyone else.
The leader looked about him now. “You, there!” he shouted, and gestured imperiously.
An ashen-faced, white-robed priest came forward, trembling, to learn what the next demands of this robber and murderer might be.
“Bring out some food and drink for my people here. Enough to make them happy. And there’s someone I’d like to see. I’ve been told that she lives here now.”
* * *
Eight years had now passed since anyone had called her Queen, and when she heard that title spoken by one of the servants chattering and whispering in fear and excitement outside her bower, it required no very quick thinking on her part to suppose that she had at last been overtaken by someone or something from those old times.
Listening to the voices more carefully now, she soon recognized a familiar, careless booming that broke in among the others. No need to guess any further. She could tell that the tones of the familiar voice, even as loud as they were, were intended to be soothing; he already had what he wanted, obviously, and he was trying now to set these harmless white-robed folk at ease. Panic, she had heard him declare many times, was always undesirable, unless you wanted to make things unpredictable.
Now the familiar voice outside said: “Tell Queen Yambu that Baron Amintor would speak with her.”
The woman who had been listening from behind a leafy screen arose and went to the entrance of her bower, so that her caller might be able to see her for himself.
“Amintor,” she called out softly. “I had heard that you were still alive.”
He turned toward her in the open sunlight, showing her a face and body changed by the eight years, though not nearly so much, she knew, as she herself was changed. He bowed to her, not deeply but still seriously, she thought.
He said: “And I had thought, my lady, that you were dead. Only quite recently did I learn that you were really here.”
“And so you have come here to see me. Well, you will find me altered from the Queen you knew.”
“Aye, to see you. And I had one other reason for wanting
to come here, which I thought it better to make sure of first. Now we can visit at our leisure. But you look well.”
“Always gallant, Amintor. Come in.”
Amintor followed the lady among her trellises into what was more a garden than a house, but even so, apparently her dwelling. Cultivated insects hummed musically among some flowers. In the silence of his own mind the Baron was thinking that she looked about sixty years old now, or fifty-five at the very least, although he knew that in fact she could hardly be much more than forty. Her hair had turned from raven black to silver since he had seen her last, and her face bore deep lines that he had never seen before. Her step was firm enough as she moved ahead of him, but without energy. Her body was still straight and tall, but he could tell little more than that about it because of the loose gray clothing that she wore. That, too, was a considerable change.
They had now reached a roofed portion of her dwelling where there was simple furniture. Here the lady gestured her caller to a plain wooden seat.
“I know what I look like,” said the former Queen, seating herself across from him, and in her voice he could hear for the first time a hint of the old fire and iron. “Hold Soulcutter in your hands throughout a battle, man, and see what you look like at the end of it. If it were not for Woundhealer, of course, I’d not be here now to talk about the experience…. I suppose you’ve got that one in your possession now; Woundhealer I mean. I thought I heard some clash of arms out there. Well, I could have told them that they’d need more guards. A child could have told them they’d not be able to keep such a treasure here without defending it. But they’re impractical, as always. Never mind, tell me of yourself. That’s not Woundhealer at your side, is it-? No, it couldn’t be. What is this one that you have, then?”