“How do you know so much about them?” The ice was still in his gut, and now his lips were going dry.
“That is something else that I cannot remember. Perhaps I saw a great worm once, when I was-when the evil people had power over me. Perhaps I saw-” Then the girl was silent, a pause that stretched on and on.
“Tell me more,” Zoltan urged.
Her human lungs drew in a deep breath. “There is only one way I can think of by which it might be killed. A creature like this must seek some kind of shade, under trees, and lie still through most of the day. Otherwise the heat of the sun will kill it-it cannot find enough water here to lie in. Or it may be that the Master has given it the protection of his magic, too. Then even the magic of your Sword will do you no good at all. And if that is not enough, there is one more danger. The worm can hypnotize large animals and even sometimes people, and force them to march right into its jaws.”
“But I must follow it.” He could do that much. That was all he had to think about now, following it. If and when he actually came in sight of it-then he would decide what had to be done next.
Pushing on again, following the trail, Zoltan came to more droppings, and more bones. He found himself thanking Ardneh
that the trail was still old. He estimated several days old, from the condition of the uprooted plants.
A thing this size could even gobble a land walker. Especially if one came along that was not too large.
How do you know where, in all that length, to find the heart?
AGAIN the moon was almost full. Baron Amintor, riding alone, observed the off-round shape of it just beginning to materialize in the eastern sky at dusk as he began to jockey his riding-beast uphill around a minor waterfall, which occupied most of the width of a small canyon. The Baron, after a month of lonely travel, was still wearing his two Swords, one at each side.
He had been traveling almost steadily since trading Swords with Prince Mark, and he had come a long way on a winding route. The Baron’s goal, a prearranged meeting place, was very near now. It lay just upstream along the river he had now reached. Amintor had never seen this river, the Sanzu, before, but he knew that its headquarters were somewhere deep in the rocky hills of Tasavalta, a good many kilometers to the east and north of here.
It was not the Baron’s habit to hurry unnecessarily, but now he was peering somewhat anxiously ahead of him through the dusk, and when his riding-beast began to demonstrate an increasing reluctance to go forward, he kicked it in the ribs to urge it on. Amintor did not want to risk being late for the impending meeting. The appointment he was trying to keep had cost him a great deal of time and energy to set up, and it was of inestimable importance to his future.
The past month had not been unpleasant. As a rule he actually preferred traveling alone. No member of that band who had been with him before he’d taken the Sword of Mercy would have been a suitable companion for the grander enterprise upon which he was now entering; and by now the Baron felt almost grateful to Prince Mark for helping him to be rid of them all. Under the new conditions they might well have proved something of an embarrassment.
Amintor had expected, when he sent messengers to propose this meeting, that he’d be coming to it with Farslayer and Woundhealer at his belt-but as matters now actually stood, he thought he was in a substantially stronger position even than that.
Here, as on the even higher reaches of the Sanzu, none of the individual falls and rapids were very high, but there were a great many of them, which made progress difficult for anyone on foot or mounted who sought to follow the stream closely. When he had attained the next level spot where there was room, the Baron paused to let his mount breathe while he gazed up at the next splashing fall above and muttered to himself-it was a habit that had begun to grow on him during the past few weeks of solitude.
“No sign as yet he’s here at ail. And I’ll not find him at all should he not want to be found. But I’m still convinced he’s here and wants to talk to me.”
Impatiently he cut short the pause for rest and pressed on. And, rounding the next rugged bend in the stream, the Baron had good evidence that his conviction was correct. Not that he saw the eminent wizard he had come here to meet; but what he did see awaiting him in the dusk appeared to be something even more unusual.
It lay like a fallen log across the earth and made a gently sagging bridge across the stream. And it was a roughly cylindrical, horizontal shape. But it was too thick and far too
long-even had it not been disposed across the canyon in great snakelike curves-to be any fallen log that Amintor had ever seen.
At first glance he thought it might be some peculiar earthen bank, showing where the river had once followed a slightly different course. But here in the canyon that would be impossible, and anyway the configuration of the object was all wrong for that. Here and there it rose above the earth.
And then, even as the Baron studied it, the thing, the formation, whatever it was, moved. Shuddering longitudinally in a majestic, large-scale ripple, it shook off the fallen leaves that had begun to drift upon its top, and started up small animals which had been huddling next to it. The thought crossed Amintor’s mind that the thing must have been lying immobile for quite some time if small animals had started to regard it as part of the landscape.
But his main, overwhelming impression was of sheer awesome size.
Now another part of the vast length, thirty or forty meters from where Amintor sat his mount, rose up from the earth. Something that had to be a head, though it looked to Amintor as big as a small chariot, reared up at that distance, topping the small trees. Yes, those two bright plates in the dusk were eyes. Impossibly huge, round and green as fishbowls, with such a span of shadow in between them that the Baron found he had some difficulty in drawing his next breath.
He looked to right and left along the rugged canyon floor, trying to see where the curves of the titanic body ended. What with the trees, and the shadows of the oncoming night, he couldn’t tell. One thing was certain: there appeared to be no way for him to get around the creature, not in the confines of this gorge. Yet his instructions had been plain in the answer his messenger had brought back; this was certainly the way he had to pass if he was going to follow those
instructions. And he was sure that this obstruction was not accidental.
The Baron’s mount, faithful enough to jump off a cliff upon command, was growing restive in the presence of this monstrous creature, and he had to struggle for control to keep the riding-beast from bolting. He knew what to call the thing that blocked his way-a great worm-though in all his travels he had never actually seen one until now.
It was the terminal phase in the life cycle of the dragon; and not one in a million of those beasts ever reached it.
His two Swords in their metal sheaths clattered with the motion of the terrified riding-beast under him. Neither Farslayer nor Shieldbreaker was of the least good to him now. The one Sword that might possibly be able to help a man against such a creature was one Amintor did not have.
As he struggled with his mount, wondering meanwhile what to do next, a man’s voice called to him from beyond the dragon. “Come on, then! Climb over!”
It was an authoritative voice, and though it was completely unfamiliar to the Baron, he had no doubt of who its owner was. Very well, then, he would climb over the waiting dragon.
If he was going to do so, there was no choice for him but to dismount and leave his mount where it was; to his relief the riding-beast quieted as soon as he got off its back-it grew peaceful with magical suddenness indeed, he thought wryly-and let itself be tethered.
Then he approached the scaly wall of the worm’s side, trying to look as if this was something he did every day, or once a year at least. As he did so Amintor thought that there were smaller eyes, eyes on a human scale, regarding him from a high ledge of rock beyond the beast. But he ignored mat gaze for the time being.