“Well, it can’t be any overwhelming army that’s coming after us; the flyers couldn’t be that far wrong about numbers. And whoever it is, for some reason, is not coming very fast. Very determined, because they broke the ambush-so if they’re not moving fast, it’s because they absolutely can’t.”
He looked around him. The faces of his followers still looked grim. Sometimes he wished he could be rid of them all. He added decisively: “We turn east tomorrow. I want to get a look at just what is coming after us, and how many of them.”
Amintor’s next step was to go into a close conference with his beast master and his enchantress to discuss just where the best place might be for this doubling back and observation.
The two aides bickered with each other, as usual; neither of them was particularly competent.
The Baron had already rejected the idea of splitting his force into two or three parts, or even scattering it into single trails hoping to reunite at some distant rendezvous. He suspected that if he tried that, the Prince might have some way of singling out and following his-the Baron’s-trail. Still, Amintor might try splitting his people up, if everything else failed-but everything else had not failed yet.
His enchantress, having somehow driven the beast master away, told Amintor: “The Prince pursues us because we have Woundhealer.”
“Likely enough. Likely enough, but we can’t be sure of even that as yet. Unless you have some proof in magic of what you tell me … ? I thought not. Tomorrow, as I say, we must get a look at him.”
And next day, Amintor, tired from a hard ride, refusing to allow his tiredness to show, did manage to get a look. Lying on his belly on the grass atop a gentle hill, he scanned the hunters’ formation as they moved along his trail. They were less than a kilometer distant in a direct line, though if they continued simply plodding along his trail they were still many kilometers behind.
The first thing that leaped to the Baron’s attention as he inspected the Tasavaltans was the blue-green uniforms, confirming that Prince Mark was indeed his adversary. The second thing was the presence of the litter. Just the kind of all-important clue that the damned idiot reptiles could be expected to ignore.
“Not your usual equipment for a difficult pursuit,” he commented to the enchantress, who had crawled up to be at his side. “Considering it in conjunction with the fact that he’s trying to get Woundhealer, what is your conclusion?”
The woman said promptly: “That he was coming to the White Temple. That he has come a long way from Tasavalta, bringing with him someone in need of healing. That this person is unable to ride, or at least unable to ride well. That when the Prince reached the Temple, the Sword was already gone. And-”
“Enough, enough. And now I would like to know whether you can confirm something I have heard about the ruling family of Tasavalta, which seems to me quite pertinent to our present situation?”
Magic would not likely be required to answer that. The private affairs of the mighty were a constant topic of discussion among the high and low of all nations.
The enchantress said: “That the Prince’s eldest son has been a cripple since birth.”
Amintor nodded. He was smiling.
ALTERNATELY waking and sleeping all through the night, never quite sure at any given moment whether or not he was dreaming, Zoltan was carried steadily upstream at the pace of a modest walk. He was still sitting in the water and could feel the movement of it around his body, but he had no sensations of wetness or cold. This bizarre mode of transportation was soft and effortless, and whether he was borne up falls or rapids, or along stretches of the river that were almost level, the speed of it was unvarying.
During one of Zoltan’s wakeful periods he was clear-minded enough to realize that the stream had been maintaining an almost level course for an inexplicable distance. This made him wonder if he was still in the Sanzu, which he remembered as an almost endless string of falls and rapids. This stream might well be one of that river’s small tributaries- or, for all he knew, he had been translated entirely to some realm of magic where all things, including rivers, were new and strange.
Zoltan was now wakeful enough to take increasing interest in his mode of travel. The stream itself, he saw from close observation, was continuing to flow normally downhill. Only a small localized swirl or eddy, centered on Zoltan’s body and perpetually bearing him along with it, moved in a
direction contrary to nature. He supposed it was a weakened water elemental; the strange-looking wizard had hinted at something along that line. There were no other signs of enchantment. The trees and rocks and land along the shores were ordinary-looking objects, even though the total landscape that they made was unfamiliar.
Eventually, as the eastern sky began to gray with morning, the forces that were impelling Zoltan upstream appeared to weaken. First his feet began to drag in mud, and then his bottom thumped against a rock. Shortly after that first jolt his upstream progress slowed noticeably. Then it stopped altogether and he sank to the bottom.
Enchantment had now vanished totally. He was sitting in the cold water, little more than ankle-deep, of some stream he still could not recognize in the brightening daylight. He was certainly far from home, and lost. But he was free.
Numbly, Zoltan judged that Karel’s river-elemental, which must have been propelling him along, had now died, or dissipated, or whatever such powers did when they reached the end of their existence.
But who had that scrawny, crazy, gibbering wizard been? Like someone out of a dream-but it was no dream that here he, Zoltan, was, set free. Was the rescuing wizard some aide or ally of Karel’s? That was hard to believe, from the way the peculiar man had talked. Karel himself, in disguise? That was impossible.
Whoever the strange little magician was, Zoltan understood that he owed him his life.
Sitting in the shallow stream, he became suddenly aware of a great thirst and turned himself over on all fours and drank. Then with a sigh of repletion he got stiffly to his feet and looked about him in the light of early morning. Still, nothing about the landscape looked familiar.
All of Zoltan’s limbs were tingling now as if he had hardly
THE F”ST BOOK OF LOST SWORDS
moved them for a week-which he supposed might be the actual explanation. But his legs were still able to support him. He waded out onto the southern shore of the small stream and started walking, his face toward the morning, assuming vaguely that his home must be somewhere in that direction. He looked ahead of him for the familiar hills but could not see them yet. At least the country was open, and progress easy.
The girl came suddenly into his mind-not that she had ever completely left it. He was freed now of the enchantment that had made her an obsession, but he had not forgotten her. He seemed to remember having seen her change into a fish, and back again.
Probably she wasn’t human at all, but only a creation of her human master, the man who had bound Zoltan with spells and thrown him into the cave. Or possibly she owed her existence to that harder-to-define and even more frightening presence that had worn small, arm-sized wings and ridden much larger wings up into the night sky…. Zoltan shuddered and looked round him warily in the clear morning. It was hard to believe, here and now, that that had been anything but an evil nightmare.
His imprisonment in the mud-cave had been more than a nightmare. His stomach certainly felt as if he hadn’t eaten for a week.
Presently he roused himself from speculation to find that the morning’s new sun had somehow come around to his left, and he was walking south.
He corrected his course, but in a few minutes, to his renewed surprise, the sun was on his left again.
This time he stopped and stood thoughtfully for a moment. But there was nothing to do but try to go on.
Again he corrected his course, and this time proceeded carefully, paying attention to his directions at every stride.
Soon he realized that he was being guided by a gentle tilting of the ground. Even when the way to the east lay on a gentle downhill slope, the angle of the earth somehow reversed itself where he actually stepped on it. East became a perpetual climb, and south, the easy downhill course. This experience of the tilting earth was similar in a way to what he had felt when he was in the cave; yet in another way this was different, somehow purposeful. South was now always invitingly downhill, though when he walked south he never descended any lower than the surrounding plain. But east was forever uphill, and the slope under his feet became steeper and steeper the longer he tried to persevere in maintaining that direction.