Mark’s picked troops were keeping up with him so far. He himself, in the center of the charging line, had been the chief
target for the enemy. But he had come through the hail of missiles unharmed.
The moments had already passed in which the enemy-they were indeed dressed as mere bandits, Mark saw now-might have decided to retreat, and managed to escape. Some of them did want to flee at the last moment, when, perhaps, they had already recognized the Sword. But by then it was too late.
A few of the people who had been hidden in the little grove were now trying to mount their riding-beasts to meet the Tasavaltan charge. Others dodged on foot among the trees, ready to strike at the Prince and his riders as they passed.
By now Mark’s powerful mount had moved him a few strides ahead of the others in his party. For a long moment he fought alone, almost surrounded amid the enemy. The Sword of Force went flashing right and left, pounding like a pulse in some great climax of exertion. The blade dissected enemy armor, flesh, and weapons, all with razor-sharp indifference. Clamped in its user’s hand, it twisted the Prince and his riding-beast from side to side together, meeting one threat and then the next, or two simultaneously. Whether by sheer speed, or perhaps sheer magic, Mark thought he saw his own right arm, with the Sword in it, on both sides of him at once.
That first shock of combat ended in the space of a few heartbeats. Only now did Mark have time to realize that there were more bandits here among the trees than he had expected, perhaps ten or a dozen of them in all. Without Shieldbreaker, this counterattack of his might well have proven a disastrous mistake. As it was, no more than half of the enemy had survived their closing with him. And the survivors, those who had so far stayed out of the Sword’s reach, were now simply trying to get away.
The Prince and his comrades-in-arms gave chase. His powerful mount, a truly royal animal, was gradually overtaking the fastest of the fleeing mounted bandits. At the last moment the fellow twisted in his saddle to fight, aiming his long-handled battle-ax at Mark in a despairing two-handed swing. Shieldbreaker had fallen silent, but now it thudded again, twice, as fast as the sun might flicker from its blade. Mark’s own mount pounded on, slowing as he reined in gently and steadily. Behind him on the ground there lay a broken ax, a fallen and dismembered rider, a wounded riding-beast struggling to get up.
Mark turned his own animal and rode it slowly back. The fight was over; only two of the enemy had not been killed, and they were prisoners. The Sword was quiet now, and he was able to let it go. He wiped it-in an instant, as always, it was perfectly clean-and put it back into its sheath. Then he flexed the numbed cords of his right hand and wrist. His whole right arm felt strange, as if it might begin to swell at any moment. But it was functioning; and, all things considered, the Prince was not going to complain.
The action away from the Sword of Force had been savage also, and the Prince saw that two of his own people were down with wounds, though it appeared that both of them would survive, and, almost as important, be able to ride if not to fight. Matters were under control.
He rode back to the hill from whose top he could easily be seen from the old trail below and waved his blue-green column on, giving them the agreed-upon signal for a victory. He heard a thin cheer go up, and the column started. Ben had halted it, just outside the effective range of missiles from the ambushers’ original position.
The Prince added another signal, summoning one of the physicians to hurry ahead; then he rode quickly back to where the two enemy survivors were now being held.
Leaving Shieldbreaker in its sheath, he dismounted and
approached the captive men. Here were two who had been ready to rain stones and arrows from ambush upon his son. Without stopping to think about it, Mark drew his dagger as he came.
“Mercy, Lord Prince,” said one of them, a haggard, scrawny fellow. “You are known as a good and merciful man.”
He looked at them intently, one after the other. He knew that they served Amintor, so there was no point in questioning them about that, except perhaps to see if they were inclined to tell the truth or not.
Mark dug the tip of his dagger into the nearest man’s throat, just hard enough to draw a little blood. No matter how many times he drove a weapon into flesh, it was always something of a surprise to him how little pressure was required.
“Who is your master?” he demanded. “Speak!”
“Uh. The Baron, we call him. Uh.”
“Good, you’ve told me the truth once.” Mark maintained the dagger pressure, though his right hand still felt strange and was still quivering from the grip of magic that other blade had fastened on it. “Now try again: What is the Baron’s destination, now that he has his new Sword?”
“He never told us that. Oh, ah.” The man died almost silently; the point of the dagger in Mark’s hand had dipped down to the level of the victim’s heart before it plunged in through his shirt.
Even with this example to contemplate, the second man was no more informative before he died. His passing was almost as quick as that of his fellow had been. There was no possible way of bringing prisoners along on a cavalry chase; and no way in which these prisoners could be released. Mark considered that the world now held two less poisonous reptiles, who had been all too ready to strike at Adrian, and at himself.
There was no time to waste; now it was certain that Amintor knew they were after him. The weather was still too bad to allow the aerial scouts to bring word of the Baron’s current position, and perhaps allow a shortcut. In minutes the pursuit was going on as before, following the trail.
That evening the Baron’s own flying reptiles did manage to get into the air for a while, and back to him in his camp, bringing him news of the failed ambush.
At least, he thought, listening to the reports as his beast master translated them, at least some ground had been gained on the pursuers. But that gain was certainly overshadowed by the fact that more than a third of his own total force had now been wiped out.
When he had gleaned all the information that he could from the animals through their human trainer, a process that involved many questions and several patient rehearings, the Baron’s face was grave. He had never believed that a leader ought to hide his feelings at all times from his subordinates. A commander in his situation would be thought a madman, or an absolute idiot, if he appeared to be unaffected by the loss of so many people. There was no getting around it. The attempted ambush had wasted nearly a third of his entire force. And the efficiency with which the ambush had been detected and crushed boded ill for the survival of the rest.
Amintor was strongly minded to do an ill turn to whoever was responsible.
There was one ray of hope: his pursuers, whoever they were, did not appear to be able to travel very fast. The reptiles reported that the Baron and his surviving people had been able to gain ground on them since the chase had resumed.
From the scanty description that the winged scouts had been able to provide, he strongly suspected that his pursuer was
Prince Mark of Tasavalta. Amintor knew Mark of old, and considered him an enemy, but would have much preferred him as an unsuspecting rather than an active one. And from what the reptiles had been able to communicate about the fight, the Baron had little doubt that the Sword in the Prince’s hand was Shieldbreaker, which he was known to possess.
None of this would be good news to Amintor’s remaining people, and Amintor had not yet informed them of his conclusions.
He would have to get a look at those who were chasing him to make sure who they were. Much would depend on making sure of that.
Glancing around at the brighter people among his subordinates, the Baron decided that they were probably capable of making the same deductions he had made regarding the opposition they now faced. It would be a mistake to carry honesty too far-one could very easily do that. With an effort he brightened up, told his people what he thought was going on, and began the job of convincing them that they were still going to be able to survive-not only that, but win.