Fortunately for himself, the only folk he encountered directly in the streets of Tashigang were refugees, even more frightened and certainly more disorganized than he. They all gave a wide berth to the great bare blade that he was carrying, whether any of them recognized its magical potential or not.
At each intersection that he came to, the Baron paused, and he looked carefully down each street before he crossed it. He avoided anything that looked like the colors of any army, and anything that even suggested the live presence of organized troops.
Now and then the Baron would pause in his course to squint up at the sun. Frequently it was obscured by one column of smoke or another, but he could estimate the time. Many hours would have to pass before darkness came to help him make his way out of the city. It was now no later than midafternoon, and the dust and smoke of the city’s suffering still hung over everything in an evil fog.
The walls that completely surrounded the city were everywhere too high, and the gates too few, to encourage casual passage at the best of times. These times were not the best. The Baron’s first objective was the Hermes Gate, but when he came in sight of its inner doors he could see that they were still closed and defended.
Breaking his way into a tall building through a poorly barricaded rear window, he went up many stairs. Looking down from the high rooftop, he thought he could see soldiers of an assaulting army massing on the road just outside the gate, with reinforcements coming up. He was going to have to find another exit.
Back in the street again, Amintor chose a route that roughly followed the curving course of the great, ancient walls, that went uphill and down like the Great Worm Yilgarn. He was looking for a way out, but discovered none until he had come back to the river, the same broad stream that flowed beside the House of Courtenay.
Even after all he had already seen today, the Baron was astonished by what he now beheld. One of the huge watergates guarding the approaches to the city by river had been torn down. Very little was left of its gigantic frame of magically rust-proofed iron and steel. Later the Baron was to learn that the gate had been wrenched from its granite sockets by the hands of Vulcan himself, before the Sword of Force had had the chance to work its strange weakening doom upon him.
Amintor was on the point of committing himself to the
river as a swimmer when he was presented with what he perceived as yet another opportunity to better his condition; he seized this one as quickly as he had the other two. This one appeared in the form of a tall, fat pilgrim wearing the white robes of Ardneh, who came wandering through the streets toward the docks and declaiming against the horrors of war around him.
With Farslayer’s long blade in hand, Amintor had little trouble in getting the man’s attention and urging him into an alley. There, away from any likely interference, the man was persuaded to divest himself of his fine white robes before they should become stained with blood; such stains would have detracted from the pilgrim image that Amintor wanted to present. As matters turned out, no bloodstains anywhere were necessary-once stripped of his dignity, the pilgrim sat down in a corner of the alley and wept quietly.
Trying on the white robes over his regular garments, the Baron confirmed to his satisfaction that they were long enough to let a man carry a long Sword under them almost inconspicuously.
Now, to the river again. After the earlier evacuation, and this much fighting, there were no boats available at any cost, in money or in blood. Wrapping up his newly acquired Sword in his newly acquired robes, Amintor floated the resulting bundle in front of him upon a sizable chunk of wood. In this mode he plunged in and went splashing strongly upstream through the open gateway and was not killed, though for some reason someone’s soldiers who were now manning the flanking defensive towers decided to use his bobbing head for target practice with their slings. Fortunately for him, they were still out of practice when he was out of range.
The Baron did not pull himself out of the river until he had made a long kilometer upstream. Luckily the river was almost free of traffic, military or otherwise, upon this martial
afternoon. When he did get out of the water he took shelter in the garden of someone’s abandoned suburban villa, from which vantage point he was able to observe developments around the city itself. He gathered more information by intercepting and questioning a lone refugee or two who passed the villa.
Amintor found some food that others had overlooked, and remained in his suburban garden until the following morning. By then he had seen and heard enough to feel sure of who was going to win, or had won, the battle, and therefore the war that so heavily depended on it.
As soon as he was sure that his side had lost, the Baron, thinking it would be a long time, if ever, before he laid claim to that title again, melted away into the countryside, as did a thousand others who had found themselves in more or less the same predicament.
During the next few days, foraging for survival as best he could, he saw a great many of those thousand others. Many of them were his own former comrades in arms, from the army of the Silver Queen. His new white robes saw little use. Amintor’s appearance, his reputation, and his ability to assert leadership, even without the great Sword now at his side, would have let him recruit as many of these people as he wanted to follow him. But he was very selective in his recruiting. Right now he did not want an army of followers, all of them hungry and poorly organized. He foresaw the scouring of the countryside for such bands that was sure to come as soon as the victorious armies had enjoyed a breathing spell in which to care for their wounded, bury their dead, and put out the fires that were still threatening the city.
That scouring, that hunt for escaping and reorganizing enemies, came just as the Baron had foreseen it would. But by the time it came, he and the handful of new followers he had recruited were well away.
.* * *
“It is a very remarkable tale,” said she who had once been Queen Yambu. “But no more than I would have expected from you. And a long time has passed between that day and this; I should like to hear more of what you have done.”
But Amintor got lightly to his feet and bestowed another bow upon the lady. He caught himself as he was about to offer thanks for her hospitality; the servants had never appeared, and he had never been given the wine he might have taken. He said: “Your Majesty is kind. I only wish I could stay long enough to tell you the rest.”
“No more of that, no titles. So, you have gained the weapon that you came here to get.”
“If the Sword of Mercy can really be called a weapon.”
“Hm. You’ll find a way to make it one. I could think of one or two methods myself if I were any longer interested in weapons … what will you do with it now?”
He gestured lightly. “The great game goes on, my lady, even if the gods themselves no longer play. I for one have not finished my turn.”
“All right, don’t tell me, then. I still wish you well. You are a great rogue, Amintor, but I still wish you well.”
IN the gathering dusk, the dark, winged shape that sat on the shadowed ledge of rock above Zoltan was all but invisible, except for its eyes. They were almost like human eyes, he thought, except that he could feel as well as see their gaze as they swept over him. One pair of eyes, and what looked like wings, and behind them movement in darkness, and that was all he could see of what or who was on the ledge.
Abruptly he discovered that he could not move. His booted feet felt as if they had taken root in the bottom of the stream. His arms were numb and hung down limply at his sides. Enchantment. Zoltan tried to cry out and could utter only a feeble croak. It might be magic that had disabled his voice too, or it might be fear.
As Zoltan stood paralyzed, ankle-deep in flowing water, another figure came as if from nowhere into his field of vision, standing on the far bank of the stream. This new shape, visible in the unshadowed moonlight and the very last of the fading glow of day, appeared, in the circumstances, startlingly ordinary. It was that of a man of indeterminate age, dressed in a soft robe and slippers, as if for lounging in a palace.