“Little old wizard, hey?” Still grimaced as if he found that description distasteful. And very puzzling. “Did this feller tell you why we were supposed to get a Sword?”
The man’s arms, holding out the sword belt, sagged with exhaustion. “He said we had to bring it here because Prince Mark needed it. I suppose he means Prince Mark of Tasavalta, that’s the only one I ever heard of … and someone here would take the Sword on to him.”
Still continued to take thought. He stroked his chin, almost like a rustic considering an offer for his pumpkins. Almost.
“It’s taken us weeks to get here!” the man holding the Sword agonized.
“Prince Mark needs it?” Zoltan asked.
The visitor, with new hope, switched his attention to Zoltan. “Yes! That’s what the wizard tells me!”
“Then I will take it to him.” And Zoltan reached out for the Sword. He had handled weapons before, but still somehow the weight surprised him; no wonder the man’s arms were tired.
The man babbled with gratitude; his wife, in the wagon, urged him to get in and drive. “Let’s get out of here!”
But they were not to be allowed to leave that quickly. Goodwife Still had them in charge now. They could, and did, protest that they wanted to depart at once, but protesting got them nowhere. Visitors to this farm could not be allowed to go away hungry-that was some kind of a law. And besides- this was undeniable-their team needed attention. “See to the poor animals, Father!”
Mother Still led the couple, who were still muttering objections, into her house.
Zoltan stood holding the Sword in its belt while Still, who had already started to unharness the team, paused to watch
Zoltan’s right hand smothered the white dragon. The sheath, wherever it had come from, was beautiful. But then its beauty, that of merely human work, was eclipsed as the bright blade came slowly out of it.
Seeing the Swords in the Tasavaltan treasury was one thing, but drawing and holding one was something else.
After a few moments Still asked him: “You’ll be taking that to your uncle, then?”
“Reckon you’re grown-up enough to do your duty, if you be grown-up enough to see what it is.”
MARK raised his right hand abruptly, and the dusty, weary column behind him reined in, some of the animals stumbling as they came to a halt.
The single, small shape in the late morning sky, approaching from dead ahead, was not one of their own Tasavaltan scouts returning. Already it was possible to see that the set of the wings was wrong for that.
It was one of the reptilian enemy scouts. But this one was not content to circle high overhead and observe.
The creature flew straight for Mark, and from an altitude of about fifty meters-so close that stones and arrows were on the verge of being loosed at it-it dropped something, a “small packet that came plummeting down almost at the feet of the Prince’s riding-beast. In the next moment the messenger was spiraling upward to a safe altitude, where it drew wide circles in the sky, as if waiting to see how the communication it had brought might be received.
“Why do the bastards always use reptiles?” Ben asked of no one in particular.
“Because,” said the chief magician, “reptiles have a certain affinity for demons.” He gestured to an assistant.
” ‘Ware poison, Highness! Let me look at that present first!” The aide cried out and in an instant had swung down
from his mount and carefully taken charge of the object that had been dropped. It was a small leather packet, not big enough to hold much more than a folded sheet of paper.
When all due magical precautions had been taken and the packet was opened, the contents proved to be exactly that. And when the folded paper was opened, it revealed a neatly lettered message.
Salutations to Prince Mark, from an old acquaintance:
I am prepared to trade Swords with you. Yours for mine, Woundhealer for Shieldbreaker, even up, fair and square. Consider that it is impossible for you to overtake me now, and that we should both benefit from such a trade.
There has been fair dealing in the past between the two of us personally, and there is no reason why that cannot continue now.
Look atop the next cliff to which my trail brings you. Someone will be there to talk about a truce and a conference.
Mark read the message through once more and then read it yet once again. As he read he knew a sinking feeling located somewhere near his stomach because he recognized that he was seriously tempted by the offer. Whatever the worth of Shieldbreaker might be, it was never going to heal his son.
By this time Ben had ridden up beside him and was openly reading the message over Mark’s shoulder. Others had crowded around, and the Prince let them have the paper to pass around among them and read. Already Ben was profaning gods and
demons, and a murmur of derision was beginning among the others present at the idea of Amintor’s even proposing such a trade.
But Ben perhaps realized the true state of affairs. He was not smiling, and he was watching Mark closely.
Mark said: “It won’t hurt us to look atop the next cliff, as the note suggests.”
An old soldier was openly surprised. “It won’t?”
At once a lively discussion sprang up among Mark’s aides as to what kind of treacherous ambush the former Baron was likely to be preparing for them now.
The beast master advised: “The best you could possibly say for this note is that it’s an effort to delay us.”
Mark thought that as such it would be unnecessary. If Amintor was already somewhere beyond the next cliff, as he must be, then he had gained high ground; and if he was not actually as far ahead as Mark had feared, he certainly had the advantage of terrain. There was no way the Prince was going to catch him now-not unless Mark were willing to leave his son’s litter behind and set out with picked riders at full speed. Then it might be possible.
He nodded, listening to the ongoing outrage of his friends at the suggested trade. Then he said to them: “And yet-I can remember times in the past when the Baron did deal fairly.”
“When he thought it was in his interest to do so!”
“Of course.” The Prince looked at the trail ahead, squinting into the bright sky. “But I think that I will talk to him anyway. We’ll be on guard against another ambush. And a few words cannot hurt.”
One of the magicians muttered some words of doubt about that. But it was not a reasoned objection, even in terms of magic, and Mark ignored it.
The column advanced again. Presently, as the designated
cliff grew near, a lone figure did appear on its low crest. The man was well above the advancing Tasavaltans and so out of their likely range of success with bow or sling; yet he was not too far away to conduct a shouted conversation.
Mark might not have been able to recognize that figure at first glance had he not been expecting it. Baron Amintor, never thin, had bulked fatter in the past eight years.
The figure waved, and called in a powerful, familiar voice. “Halloo! Do you have my message?”
The Prince rode a little closer before he shouted back. “Why should I trade anything with you? How do I even know what you’re carrying in that scabbard?”
And even as he uttered the words he realized that the man before him was wearing two swords, one on each side.
The Baron, right-handed and therefore a little awkward with the motion, drew the blade at his right side and held it up. The hilt remained all but invisible, smothered in his grip; but the sun caught on the blade, and even at that distance his claim to have one of the Twelve Swords became quite convincing.
Again his voice came firmly to Mark across the gulf between. “As to why we ought to trade, Prince, I think I can leave that up to you to answer. Surely you can think of at least one good reason. Why is your elder son not riding at your side today?”
Just behind Mark, Ben’s voice, sounding like a rumble of distant thunder, began to swear.
Amintor had paused for a shouted reply that did not come. Now he called: “If you are worried about what I plan to do with the Sword of Force when it comes into my possession, be assured that I have no ambitions ever to be anything more than a minor brigand. Not at my time of life. I will do nothing that might inconvenience in any way the royal family of Tasavalta-or their armies-that is the farthest thing from