Saberhagen, Fred – Lost Swords 01 – Woundhealer’s Story

The Baron, who had been listening to her snore for most of the night, ignored her now. He summoned his beast master to him again and briefed the man carefully on what he wanted to find out.

An hour or so later the new report came in from the flying reptiles: Yes, there were now two groups of mounted people in pursuit. One of these formations progressed quite slowly and was thus falling ever farther and farther behind. But the other group, as previously reported, was gaining ground, and therefore seemed more important to the scouts; it was the only one that they had mentioned in their previous report. Humans had long tried to impress upon them the need to report the nearest and the swiftest-moving of the enemy.

The Baron recalled to mind the configuration of the last few kilometers of land that he and his people had passed over. Then he acted swiftly.

He picked out a dozen or more of his best troops, grimly aware that he was undoubtedly going through a very similar process to the one that the Prince must have followed on being forewarned of Amintor’s attempted ambush. With this assault force set aside, the Baron ordered the remainder of his people, with all of the spare mounts and the meager baggage of his train, to continue their retreat in the same direction as before. Sniffing the wind and scanning the sky, he could hope that the Prince’s aerial scouts would not report his splitting his force and doubling back with part of it. Clouds and wind were both increasing now, rapidly enough to give the Baron hopes of that. Then, with his dozen picked men following him, the Baron

rode in a wide loop, heading for the place where he thought the litter ought to be now if it had advanced steadily since last reported. At the moment there did not seem to be any of the Tasavaltan birds aloft. He could hope that they would not observe his maneuver, but he could not rely on their failure to do so.

In a matter of minutes, Amintor and the fast riders with him were thundering down an arroyo, heading in a direction exactly opposite to the one in which they had been industriously retreating only a few minutes earlier. He felt reasonably confident that he had now outflanked the rapidly advancing forces of the Prince.

Presently, mounting a hill, he came in view of a small plateau, ahead of him and a trifle lower; the far side of this tableland fell away precipitously. Amintor could see the small Tasavaltan baggage train progressing across the top of the plateau, the litter in the middle surrounded by half a dozen guards. Also beside the litter there rode one white-robed figure, doubtless a physician. That was all. The Baron’s striking force had the Tasavaltan Guard detachment seriously outnumbered.

Wasting no time, the Baron maneuvered his people closer, up to the near edge of the plateau where the slope was gradual, then led them breaking into view and charged.

The guards around the litter hesitated when they saw the bandits coming, but then realized they were badly outnumbered, and retreated, galloping to save their lives. The physician, abandoning his patient, fled with the rest.

Now the load beasts of the Tasavaltan baggage train, including the one that bore the litter, finally decided that it was time for panic. They started off at the best lumbering run that they could manage, in the general direction of the cliff.

Amintor shouted, kicked his heels into his mount’s ribs, and led the chase. In a matter of moments the litter was

overtaken. One of the Baron’s people grabbed the load beast’s harness and brought the stampeding animal to a halt. Meanwhile Amintor himself had ridden up beside the litter, ripped open the canvas shade covering one side, and looked in to see-an empty pallet.

Understanding came to him even before he heard the shouts behind him. From nearby woods, along another edge of the tableland where the slope was gentle, there now burst out a wave of Tasavaltan uniforms, a cavalry charge with leveled weapons. In the center of the line rode the Prince himself, with Shieldbreaker brandished high. Meanwhile, the guards who had pretended flight were turning as one rider and coming back at a gallop toward the baggage train.

Amintor’s people were now outnumbered and caught between two forces. They had already scattered, beginning their pursuit of the various baggage animals, and the Baron made no attempt to rally them. Not against a disciplined force of superior strength. And most especially not against the Sword of Force. Never that without most careful preparations, none of which had been made. Instead, the Baron instantly abandoned his own comrades-in-arms, even as they were scrambling to abandon him. He fled for his life.

The blue-green uniforms were closing in on three sides of him. A sword-not Shieldbreaker-came swinging at his head. He parried it in a ringing crash with Farslayer, whose own magic still slept. It would be useless to evoke that particular power in the face of a dozen enemies. Amintor rode on, bent low over his mount’s neck. His riding-beast was swift but not the equal of the one the Prince was riding, he was sure. The lack of speed would doom him if the cliff ahead did not; but there was still one chance.

The Baron’s people were all out of action. His foes in dozens were thundering after him, behind him and on each flank, all closing in. Yet, in mid-gallop, he managed to

replace Farslayer in its scabbard at his left side, and then, awkwardly, he worked the Sword of Mercy out of its sheath at his right. Behind him closer than ever he could hear the Prince’s voice, calling thunderously for him to surrender, shouting to him that he was trapped. Ahead the tableland ended abruptly, at the edge of what must be a considerable cliff. Well, Mark was a good fellow and all that, but Amintor was not minded to become Mark’s prisoner-not right now. Not just after being tricked into trying to take the Prince’s darling son a hostage.

Slung stones and arrows sang past the Baron’s head. He tried to dodge them, bending his neck beside the long neck of his steed. The animal stumbled, it was wounded, but it did not go down.

The edge of the cliff ahead was rushing closer. There was no doubt that the gulf beyond was one of deadly depth.

If this desperate attempt should fail, thought Amintor, then still it has been a good life, all in all. Would he want to live it all over again, making the same choices? One thing he did know, he wouldn’t trade the life he’d had for one, or two, or three of the ordinary kind. He thought: I have led an army, an army of people who were eager to follow me; and I have bedded a beautiful queen; and I have stolen from a god.

His riding-beast was superbly trained and had never yet refused to do anything that the Baron asked of it in combat. Nor did the animal now betray his confidence; running at full gallop it went high and nobly off the cliff. Only when he was falling did Amintor allow himself to look down, to glimpse the flat hard rock and rocky soil some fifty meters below.

He felt the animal’s muscles tense convulsively beneath

him in midair and saw its limbs begin to windmill. It tried to

turn its neck back, halfway through the long fall, to look a

question at its master.

Clutching Woundhealer to his chest with all his force,

Amintor felt the galvanic pang of the silvery blade entering his very heart. Force poured from that enchanted steel, a power that, far from killing him, would have altered him into someone else if he had let it do so. Fiercely he resisted that godlike force, clinging to himself, to being what he was, what he chose to be.

Still in midair, somewhere past the middle of the long fall, he separated himself deliberately from the animal that had been carrying him. Now it was as if he still had an infinitely long time to consider what was happening, to think of things that he might do. With both hands he held the Sword of Mercy by its hilt, keeping the blade inside his body, transfixing his own heart. He saw his stallion moving away from him a little as it fell, its four legs still working, trying to gain purchase on the air.

He did not look down again, never saw the last rush of the ground coming at him. He only felt, beyond pain, his body shatter with the impact at the bottom of the fall, the bones in his legs go splintering away as he came down feet first. Now at last he let himself look down, to see a flash of terrible white sticks, their jagged ends protruding through his leggings.

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