Now each man was approaching the Sword that his adversary had put down. And now each quickened his pace just a little. Mark came within a stride of the Sword in front of him and bent to pick it up without lowering his gaze more than momentarily from the Baron, who was simultaneously bending to take up Shieldbreaker. Mark observed that Amintor, doubtless mindful of the possibility of treacherous arrows or stones, had put his mount between himself and the cliff top. But once Shieldbreaker was in his hand, he stepped out boldly from behind the animal.
We might, thought Mark now, have shot at the animal and
disabled it. Then we might have rushed him … but there
was no use now thinking about possibilities that had not been
foreseen, pondering plans that had never been made.
Amintor now had the Sword of Force in hand.
But Mark had Woundhealer. The hilt of the Sword of
Mercy had come into his hand, bringing with it a flow of gentle
power; this Sword was one of those he had held before, and
the touch of it was unmistakable. It brought back, with a rush
of memory, the days when he had first come to know Kristin,
when for a time the two of them had been alone against the world, and princely power was far away.
Triumph shone in the face of Amintor as his right hand closed upon the hilt of the Sword of Force. But the Baron did not delay for even a moment to savor triumph. Nor did he deviate in the least from the behavior that had been agreed upon.
Mark had anticipated the possibility of treachery by the other at this point. But the Prince knew how to fight against Shieldbreaker and was ready to disarm himself before Amintor could gallop across the space that intervened between them. And the other would have to consider that Mark might not disarm himself, but might instead wield the Sword of Mercy; what Woundhealer might do in direct opposition to the Sword of Force had never been tested.
But that test was not to happen now. Amintor was keeping to the letter of his agreement regarding the exchange. Now astride his mount, the Baron saluted Prince Mark with his new possession, and now the triumph in Amintor’s face was unmistakable. In another moment he was off, cantering briskly toward the line of trees that marked the course of the small stream after it meandered away from the foot of the line of cliffs.
Mark looked down at the black hilt in his own fist and at the small, white, open hand that marked it as a symbol. A moment later he had turned his back on the retreating Baron and had in fact almost forgotten him. The Prince moved quickly to meet the friends who ran toward him.
Adrian’s eyes were open when Mark stepped into the tent. The boy was lying on his back but sat bolt upright on his pallet as soon as his father approached with the Sword in hand. Both of the Princeling’s small hands came up, eagerly groping, to touch the blade of Woundhealer as his father held
it out toward him. The small fingers played freely over the invisible keenness of those edges and came away from them undamaged.
But Mark could feel that no real power had yet gone forth from Woundhealer. The sightless gaze of his son still wandered as before, and Adrian’s small voice was silent.
Now Mark, with his friends crowding unheeded into the tent behind him, knelt down beside the pallet of his son and thrust the Sword forward again. It touched the head of Adrian, and that keen point passed across his eyes and through them. But still those eyes saw nothing, and still Mark could feel nothing in the hilt.
“Light,” the child said suddenly. “Father, light!”
But then Mark’s son lay back in his bed, his hands still groping in the familiar gestures. His eyes refused to follow the physician’s hand when it passed back and forth in front of them. It was obvious that his blindness was no better than before.
Another hour had passed before Mark emerged from the tent at last. He stumbled into the sunlight as if he too were now blind. Ben was at his side, trying to think of words to say to him. But the Prince had the look of a man who could not hear, almost the look of a man who is ready to die.
Woundhealer had done absolutely nothing for his son.
THE mermaid was struggling fiercely if not very effectively against the reptiles that swooped at her from the air. Her broad, flat tail thrashed up sheets of water, her small fists struck out at jaws and wings that came within their reach. She screamed at them in her human voice, using the wizards’ language that Zoltan did not know, and for the first few seconds the sound of the words seemed to upset their attack.
But in a moment they came screaming and clawing back at her, renewing the assault.
The beasts were larger than eagles, with teeth and talons big enough to kill. All that saved the fish-girl from immediate and serious injury was the water. She had luckily found an unusually deep pool, though even here she was almost too big to submerge entirely in her half-human form. The water could not protect her completely from the diving, reaching talons. The flying creatures, though reptilian, were not amphibious. But they could evidently tolerate brief plunges.
Next time the mermaid came up, she was armed with rocks in both hands and hurled them at the leather-wings. They ignored the missiles and dove at her again.
But by now Zoltan was standing on the bank beside the mermaid’s pool. Dragonslicer was a bigger and heavier sword
than any he had used in practice, but it was not too big for him to swing. And never, in practice or anywhere else, had he handled a weapon as keen and deadly as this one. Though no magical power had yet manifested itself as it ought to have done against true dragons, neither were the creatures he was fighting protected by the incredibly tough armor of a dragon’s scales. In Zoltan’s capable two-handed grip the weighty steel drove razor-sharp through leathery skin, sinew, and bone. Any of the attackers that he managed to hit solidly fell dead or crippled from the air at once.
The human voice of the mermaid gasped and sobbed for breath whenever she had to bring her head above the surface of the water. Apparently she was forced to come up for air like a human. In the hasty glances he could spare to look at her, Zoltan could see that she was wounded and bleeding about the arms and shoulders. But she defended herself as best she could with rocks and fists, and showed no sign of disabling injury as yet.
Abruptly the enemy broke off the attack, leaving three of their number dead or wounded on the ground. Dragonslicer had taken off the head of one of them completely, and two more were crippled. Some of the reptiles still airborne were flying as if they had been wounded too, nicked or scraped by the Sword that had not been quite quick enough to take their lives.
Zoltan, panting, standing ankle-deep now in the water of the stream, rested his weight on the Sword of Heroes, feeling the sharpness of the point cleave its way slowly into the bottom of the stream between rocks. He was still uninjured, and he knew a savage pride. He was fighting off these dangerous and determined creatures without the help of any magic, under his own power. The girl’s head broke the surface of the water in the pool
beside him, and Zoltan looked at her. She was floating on her back, gasping and bleeding in a very human way.
“Can you get away,” he asked, “while they are gone? Swim downstream? Is there a deeper pool within your reach that way?”
She watched the circling creatures in the sky. “No. Not close enough. They would have me before I reached it.” She floated on her back, resting, tail stirring the surface weakly. “He has sent them after me,” she added. “I am not worth a greater effort on his part, I suppose.”
And then the enemy, whose black swarm had briefly receded, were coming back again.
Once more the mad confusion of the fight descended upon Zoltan and his companion. Fighting, he had no time to think or feel or be afraid, no time to do anything but swing the Sword and duck and dodge to try to make the clawing, biting enemy miss him, and straighten up swinging the Sword again.
Two of the beasts came at him at once. He felt a claw fasten in his scalp, his flesh tearing with appalling pain. He screamed, and twirled the Sword above his head, and felt an impact as the blade bit leathery hide and bone. The talon in his scalp pulled free.