She hesitated suddenly, in mid-speech, staring past Zoltan as if she saw something there that frightened her. Before he could turn, the transformation, which until now he had not witnessed directly, happened before his eyes. There was a large puff and cloud of something like steam in the moonlight, close enough for him to feel it; and he caught one clear glimpse of a large, leaping fish before it splashed into the water.
Late next morning, Zoltan, still following the stream downhill, came upon a trail-he didn’t know how to describe it except as a trail-that was unlike anything that he had ever seen before. A vast, shallow gouge in the hard, dry earth, wide as a wagon road, knee-deep in the center and shallowing toward both sides. Desert bushes and other small plants
had been uprooted and rocks torn out of the earth and dragged. At least it was easy to see which way the trail led. It looked to Zoltan as if some cylindrical weight the size of a substantial house had been dragged in a gently curving path across the land.
The track went right across the river and away from it again on the other side. Zoltan was still sitting on the bank, around midday, frowning at it, when the mermaid emerged partially from the water to talk with him again.
This time she sat in the sandy shallows instead of climbing out. She frowned at the strange scar that wound across the earth, and announced at once: “It is the track of a great worm.”
Zoltan stared at her for a long time before he spoke. “Oh” was all he said when he did answer. Deep inside him, somewhere between his stomach and his heart, a lump of ice had suddenly congealed.
Almost everyone had heard at some time of great worms, though neither he nor the mermaid had ever actually seen one of the creatures. Very few people in this part of the world had ever done so. They were the final phase in the life cycle of the dragon and a thousand times rarer even than the land walkers.
Immediately after the first shock of fear that Zoltan experienced, doubts began to arise. Certainly this was not what Zoltan had had in mind as the spoor of the dragon. He had been intent on finding gigantic footprints of some unknown shape-but in some vague way, reptilian-looking-showing the marks of great unretracted claws. But this-this looked, he thought, as if an army had passed by, dragging all their baggage on sledges, obliterating by this means all of their own footprints and hoof prints. Such an effort might have wiped out even the tracks of dragons, land walkers, Zoltan supposed, had there been any.
“Are you sure?” he asked the girl.
“Oh, yes. I am afraid so. I am afraid that this can scarcely be anything else.”
He was silent, thinking. Was it possible that any army would march with a dragon, or several, in its train? Zoltan had been reading and listening to martial stories since he was old enough to read, and he had never heard of the creatures being used as war-animals. The beasts were said to be too stupid and uncontrollable for anyone to try to use them- though, now that he thought about it, Uncle Mark and Ben told tales of a dragon, constrained by magic, that had once been set to guard the treasure of the Blue Temple.
Suppose, Zoltan thought, someone could harness a land-walker, a big one, and make it pull a sledge. Maybe, conceivably, it would produce a trail something like this … or maybe a gouge like this one would need a squadron of land walkers. Now, following the trail slowly as it curved away from the stream-there was no doubt of which way it led-he had come to a spot where even small trees were bent and broken. One of the tree trunks was almost as thick as a man’s body.
Wide as a wagon road, yet without ruts, the broad concavity went curving gently across the rugged countryside.
If this was indeed the dragon’s path, then Zoltan’s duty was to follow it. To do so, he was going to have to leave the stream, perhaps for good, and with it abandon his alternate plan of getting back to Tasavalta that way. Also he would miss his sometime companion, but there didn’t seem to be any choice. Of course, the wizard’s actual instructions had been to stick to the river. But having found something this unusual, it was hard not to assume it was the trail he had been told to look for.
He returned to the place where the trail crossed the river, and knelt to fill his leather water-bottle. The mermaid gazed
at him sadly, and Zoltan tried to explain his difficulty to her. “I don’t know if this is really a dragon’s trail or not. But I suppose I have to follow it.”
She was silent. Then he saw with vague but deep alarm that she was starting to weep.
“It is the trail of a dragon, as I have said,” she told him presently. “But I wish that you would not follow it. I think that you are now my only friend, in all the world. And it will kill you.”
The lump of ice was back, bigger than before. Other sensations, less definable but equally uncomfortable, accompanied it. Zoltan muttered something incoherent, and for some reason he could feel himself blushing.
As if with an effort of will, the mermaid ceased to weep. Brushing hair and tears out of her eyes, she predicted that the trail would loop back to the river again within a few kilometers because of the dragon’s great need for water. “Unless of course it should be going to another river. Or some lake or pond.”
“I do not think that there are any lakes or ponds near here.”
But she was crying again and could not answer.
Zoltan finished refilling the waterskin that Mother Still had given him, and struck out away from the river, following the awestruck track, whatever it was, across country.
He came presently to a place where there were blurred hoof prints that he took to be those of several wild cattle, small convergent trails which terminated at the edge of the purported dragon’s track. Here on the barren earth was a spurt of what might be dried blood, and here, nearby, was a fragment of a wild bull’s leg, complete with hoof, some hide, and lower bones. But otherwise there were no bones or other debris to be seen in the area.
Zoltan pushed on. Presently he came to a place where there were droppings-what looked like a mound of dung, several days old and high as a man. Sharp fragments of large bones protruded from the mass. There were scales, too, and other products of digestion less identifiable.
He dismounted and poked at the mass with Dragonslicer, and swallowed. He had just felt, for the first time in his life, a stirring of power in a Sword.
Despite the mermaid’s warnings, that gave him a shock. Of course there might be tiny, mouse-sized dragons burrowing in that compost heap. He knew it wasn’t likely. That small, he thought, they should be living in a stream. Or …
The trouble was that a single creature that could make a trail like this and leave a pile like this-that was an alternative that hardly bore thinking about. Zoltan didn’t want to believe that something like that could really exist, that he might really have to face it.
He moved on.
Looking back at the titanic spoor, just before he rode out of sight of it, he still couldn’t make himself believe that it was really what it looked like. Someone must have gathered together all the droppings of the animals of the whole army, and … but why should anyone do anything like that?
No. No one creature could be that big. There wasn’t any possibility of such a thing. Besides, how could such a monstrous creature catch anything to eat? Certainly not by stealth. It could of course consume vegetation, he supposed, whole thickets and trees. But there wasn’t a lot of vegetation in this country. And in the pile back there, the bones, the evidences of carnivorism, had been plain.
Zoltan felt a little better when he saw that the trail was indeed leading him back to another loop of the river, about a kilometer away. He hurried ahead and found the mermaid already waiting for him there.
“I think you may have been right,” he told her, and explained.
“Oh yes, I am right. It is the track of a great worm, Zoltan.” She sounded sad, but resigned now, not tearful. “It is very much like an enormous snake. A great worm can move very fast for short distances. It can knock down anything you could put in its way. And I do not see how your uncle can fight it, even if the Sword that you are bringing him is magic as you say. How do you know where, in all that length, to find the heart?”