What had kept her from accepting was the fierce need to assert her independence, a need that had been with Yambu all her life. It still ruled her behavior.
With an effort she brought her attention back to the man who was now standing in front of her.
Mark was saying: “I think that some of the white-robes out there are already angry with me, as if it were my fault that their Sword was stolen. They expect me to gallop after it at once and bring it back.”
Yambu roused herself to be hospitable.
When her guest was seated and some refreshment had been brought for both of them, she said: “Well, servants of Ardneh or not, there are idiots and worse in the White Temple, just as there are in the other Temples. Or anywhere else. I’ve lived here long enough now to know that.”
Mark sipped from the mug that had been placed in front of him, then took a deeper draught. “You have chosen, then, to live eight years among idiots?”
“Oh, they have their good qualities too. They tend to be peaceful idiots, and for the most part it is soothing to live among them. When I came here I wanted nothing but to be soothed-I made them a large donation-a very large
donation-and I expect to get my money’s worth in return. But never mind them. Have you now come at last to kill me? Or arrest me?” She sounded more interested in the answer than afraid of what it might be.
“I have no particular wish to do either. Who stole the Sword of Mercy?”
“Ah, of course. It is the Sword that brings you here, too; I should have known that at once. Well, I can tell you without hesitation that it was Amintor who took it-you’d find out soon enough anyway. He sat where you are sitting now, and took some time to pay his respects to me, in token of the times when we were together. And then he recited to me something of his own history during the past eight years.”
Mark’s mouth moved in a faint smile. “An exciting tale, that must have been. Perhaps some of it was even true. What hints did he drop, or seem to drop, about his plans, now that he has Woundhealer?”
Yambu thought back. “Why, he said nothing at all about his plans. I didn’t ask him about that.”
“Not that you’d want to tell me if he did.”
“On the contrary, Prince. I think I might well tell you. I suppose I like the two of you about equally well, though you were once my enemy, and he was once my officer-and more. I’ll answer any questions you may have, if they are decently put, and if I can find the answers-why not?”
Mark looked at her, and she could see him taking note again of the extreme changes in her since he had seen her last, and thinking about what must have produced them.
Then he asked: “Where is Soulcutter now?”
Her aged eyes searched him in turn, as if she were disappointed in him. She asked: “Why d’you want that? Can’t you see what it’s done to me?”
He shook his head. “It’s not that I want it particularly. But
I’ll use it if I can. If I have nothing else to use. I’m ready to use anything.”
“Then give thanks to all the surviving gods you haven’t got it.” The former Queen sat back in her chair.
“You don’t know where the Sword of Despair is now? Or you won’t tell me?”
“Even Amintor didn’t ask me about that one. Why should you?”
“Maybe Amintor is not as desperate as I am. Where is it?”
The lady shrugged. It was a gesture that conveyed sadness and weariness more exquisitely, Mark thought, than any extravagance of behavior could have done.
Then she said: “I really don’t know. My belief is that the Emperor took it with him, when he … withdrew.”
“From politics. From war. From the affairs of humanity in general.”
“And where is he now?”
Again the lady shrugged, even more delicately than before. “I don’t know. But I don’t suppose you’re going to find him and Amintor in the same place.”
Mark talked with the lady once more, on the following morning, just before he and his people departed on Amintor’s trail. But he learned nothing useful from her.
Among the people in Mark’s small force were a couple of trackers of some skill. But as matters turned out, their skill was not really needed. Amintor, and the score or so of riders he evidently had with him, had left a trail that would have presented no real problems even to the most inexpert eye, even though it twice forded streams and in several places crossed long stretches of hard ground.
The bandits’ trail at the start led straight west from the
Temple, or as near to that direction as the local difficulties of terrain allowed. The land here verged on wasteland, harshly configured but in its own way beautiful. There were signs that grazing was sometimes practiced upon the scanty vegetation. But once the precincts of the Temple were left behind, along with the roads that approached the complex from north and south and east, all signs of human habitation soon dropped from sight.
Mark was not minded to contemplate nature, or beauty of any kind. He had undertaken the pursuit of Amintor because he saw no real alternative, but he was gloomy about the chances of success. To begin with, his riding-beasts and load beasts were still tired from the long journey they had already made. But to bivouac any longer in front of the White Temple would give the Baron too great a start.
Secondly, Mark knew that he could expect no help. The few scattered inhabitants of the territory through which he was now passing obviously were not going to provide any; and nowhere did the White Temple have any respectable armed force of its own. They had only the White Guards, best suited for keeping order in a waiting line of invalids, and with some effort usually able to repel the sneak thieves and vandals that might pester any Temple. As an army in the field, or a bandit-hunting posse, the White Guards were nonexistent.
But Mark’s greatest difficulty now was that he was compelled to bring his son with him on the chase. It would have been unthinkable to leave Adrian at the Temple, where he would be prey to kidnap or murder by the next set of desperadoes who happened along. Mark had the idea that there would almost certainly be more of them. Word of the Sword’s presence there had gone out far across the world, and many would be scheming to try to profit from it. Nor would the Prince have been able to leave any substantial number of
guards at the Temple to protect his son-the band he was pursuing was comparable to his own in size.
But the presence of an invalid child inevitably slowed down the pursuit. Even under the best of conditions, Adrian was unable to ride swiftly, and the best of conditions seldom obtained. Nor could the litter, slung between two beasts or strapped to one, make anything like the speed that might be necessary in war. The boy could be carried in front of someone’s saddle for a time, but that was awkward and in combat it might prove fatal to child and rider alike.
Still, Mark did not consider the pursuit hopeless. Amintor’s people were only bandits. And by delaying to chat with his former Queen, the Baron had shown himself to be in no breakneck hurry. Furthermore, the Baron would have no reason to expect any close and determined pursuit; he ought to have no cause to believe mat Mark was on his trail.
During the first days of the chase, Mark had scouts, both winged and mounted, out continually during the daylight hours. Camps were dry and dark, and were broken before dawn, as soon as the light was good enough to allow the following of an obvious trail.
The young Master of Beasts who accompanied the column- his name was Doblin, and he was an intense youth, though he tended to be plump-got little rest by day or night. The birds in his care were sent out on one mission after another mission with a minimum of rest. Two of the messenger-scouts were of a nocturnal, owl like species, friends of humanity since time immemorial.
On the third day of the pursuit, one of the birds that flew by day came back with multiple wounds, as if from an encounter with a leather-wings-one of the more savage types of flying reptiles, which the Dark King and his old allies had frequently used as their human enemies used birds. The
wounded bird was in no shape to be sent out again, and the beast master kept it in its cage and practiced upon it what healing arts he knew and then enlisted the help of the accompanying physicians. The creature rested on a confined perch as best it could, jouncing along upon a load beast’s back. It could not or would not communicate the nature of the attack that had disabled it.