Meanwhile the night-flying birds brought back strange reports of something large and terrifying that passed them in the sky and from which they had fled in terror, escaping only with great difficulty. The Master of Beasts was not sure how much of this story to believe. Certainly his creatures had encountered something out of the ordinary, probably some kind of winged dragon; in any case, there was little that he or anyone else could do about it.
Meanwhile, Adrian’s condition remained essentially unchanged. Mark observed with mixed feelings the stoic indifference-or so it seemed to him-with which his son bore the increasing discomfort of the long journey. The father feared that it was not courage that sustained the child, but only an ever-deeper withdrawal from the world around him.
Somehow, father and son were exchanging even fewer words than usual these days.
Adrian would-sometimes-eat food when it was put into his hands. He would drink water when someone held a cup or a canteen to his lips. He would let himself be led to the latrine pit and back; but sometimes at night he still wet his bed. He would sit when asked, stand when told to stand, usually hold himself in a saddle for a time when he was placed astride a mount. Eventually, after being put somewhere, he would change his position, and if he was in a saddle when that happened he would very probably start to fall out of it. So far someone had always been at hand to catch him safely when he toppled.
* * *
For a day now Mark had given up altogether trying to put his son into the saddle because all signs agreed that the enemy was now not far ahead. There were the wounded birds, and the trail was obviously fresher. The column had to be constantly ready for action at a moment’s notice. If Adrian was bothered by being confined to his litter almost constantly, and separated from his mother and the other people of the Palace, he gave little sign of it. He put up with everything, with a cheerfulness admired by those who did not know him as well as his father did. To Mark it seemed like sheer infantile indifference to the world.
ALL hope vanished that Amintor might not know that he was being followed. The Tasavaltans’ only surviving nocturnal scout came in exhausted at dawn to report that some of the human enemy were hiding themselves in a place of ambush ahead, overlooking the trail on which their pursuers could be expected to pass. Meanwhile the main body of the Baron’s force, perhaps about fifteen riders-birds were notoriously poor at counting-pressed on. This morning the bird had nothing further to report of the leather-wings, or whatever the mysterious aerial nighttime presence had been that had earlier attacked and disabled its mate.
Mark considered what he knew of the lay of the land ahead, taking into account his scouts’ reports in addition to what he could see for himself. To avoid the area of the reported ambush completely would take a discouragingly long time. Besides, the fact that Amintor had divided his force opened opportunities that he was reluctant to pass up.
Ben was evidently thinking along the same lines. “If the Baron knew that we have Shieldbreaker with us he might not be so eager to risk a fight.”
The Prince shook his head. “Or, on the other hand, he might know. He might be ready to take the risk. He probably knows how to fight against my Sword if he can get close
enough to me. Well, we’ll give him what he’s looking for. We appear to have some advantage of numbers.”
The morning was chill, with a sky that soon developed a good crop of low, scudding clouds. Driven by gusty autumn winds, the rack reduced the chances of successful aerial reconnaissance, though two birds went up to try. Mark wondered if the turn in the weather might have been brought about at least in part by magical interference. His own magicians could not be sure on that point, but offered to attempt counter spells. He wished silently that Karel himself were here. But wishing was pointless. The people he actually had with him were skilled, or Karel would not have sent them on this journey. Smiling at his magicians as if he really had the highest confidence in them, Mark told them to conserve their powers until later. There was no way to be sure what quality of opposition they might be facing.
As matters stood, the weather continued to make scouting difficult for anything that flew. Since Mark knew of the ambush already, he decided that this situation was more likely than not to be favorable to him, and preferred to act before it changed.
He turned command of the column over to Ben.
Then the Prince selected half a dozen of his best riders and fighters, people he judged outstanding even among the already elite group who had been chosen for this march. With this handful of troops at his back, he set out to surprise the ambushers.
Meanwhile the remainder of the little Tasavaltan column proceeded as before, with the litter protected at its center, following the broad trail left by the Baron and his people. Ben had saddled the six spare mounts and brought them from the rear up into the regular formation of riders. Lances and bedrolls tied to the saddles of the riderless beasts might, Ben hoped, deceive any flying reptiles or birds that might be able
to get through the weather on scouting missions for the enemy.
Mark and his half dozen shock troops moved away from the trail that the main group continued to follow. The seven plunged into a thicket of scrubby trees on a fast and difficult ride.
If the birds had been accurate in their description of the topography and the enemy dispositions, all should now be well. If not, the Prince and the people riding with him would have to take what came.
As Mark drew near the place where the birds had located the ambush, he slowed the pace of his advance. Very slowly he climbed what ought to be the last hill. When he was almost at its crest, he dismounted and crept up the last few meters on foot. Wind howled, and rain spattered him from the clouds close above his head.
Peering over, he allowed himself a small sigh of satisfaction. As seemed to happen so rarely in war, things were as he had hoped and expected them to be. There, half a kilometer away now, beyond and below the place where the enemy should be, wound the broad, faint trail along which moved the blue-green uniforms of his own party. Among them he could pick out Ben’s imitation riders; once the bandits who were waiting in ambush saw those, they would be likely to understand the reason for them, and anticipate a counterattack.
After this hasty glance at his own column, Mark fastened his gaze on the place, much closer, where the ambushers had to be, if the birds were right. It was a cluster of eight or ten trees, with surrounding lesser growth. The enemy were well concealed, if they were really there, and Mark could not see them yet. They would have their animals hidden in the small grove with them, but if the scouting report was correct the enemy were too few to mount a cavalry charge against the Tasavaltan force. Rather, they would be planning to loose a
volley of stones and arrows and then beat a quick retreat, after having inflicted what casualties they could upon the column as it passed beneath them.
Mark had seen enough. He turned and scrambled down to where a soldier was holding his riding-beast for him. In a few words he outlined the situation to his companions. Then, remounting, he drew Shieldbreaker and with one swift silent gesture commanded a charge.
From the moment he aimed the Sword forward he could feel the magic of it thudding softly in his hand and wrist. As yet the noise that always accompanied its magic was not loud, as if the Sword could understand that its possessor now wanted silence.
The seven Tasavaltan cavalry mounts, smelling war and eager for it, thundered down one short slope and up another. The enemy among the trees a few score meters distant had not much time in which to be aware that the charge was coming, yet they were not taken totally by surprise. Slung stones sang out, passing Mark with invisible speed, and he had one momentary impression that the air around him was full of arrows.
With the first appearance of enemy weapons, Shieldbreaker’s voice became a heavy pounding. The Sword was controlling itself now, moving into action with a force and speed that must certainly have pulled it from the Prince’s grip had not an equal force appeared to weld it to his hand. Its rhythm went tripping into syncopation. A slung stone, which Mark never had the chance to see, was shattered in midair upon that blade. He heard the fragments whine. Arrows-one, two, three of them, faster than he could count-were wiped aside by the Sword of Force before he could well comprehend that the first shaft had been about to hit him.