As soon as the airborne presence had passed, the wizard heaved a great and human-sounding sigh. Then he opened up the flask and drank, without any hesitation but with little evidence of enjoyment either. Even as the magician swallowed, the Baron felt a mild glow inside his own belly, as if it were there that the wine had landed.
Burslem passed back the flask and wiped his mouth. As the Baron drank in turn, the great worm again raised its head upon the column of its neckless body, just enough so it could turn its gaze at him. The huge eyes still glowed with the faint reflected light of the night sky. The Baron made a little gesture in the worm’s direction with the flask, a kind of to-your-health, and sipped again. The Sword at his side was quiet; was the great worm a weapon? Probably not within the logic of Shieldbreaker’s protective magic. The dragon could come and kill him and the Sword of Force would be a sword in his hand and nothing more, as useless against such an attacker as against an earthquake.
He understood that at the moment he might well be relatively vulnerable to the wizard’s power; but he also thought that for the moment he had nothing to fear from that.
Burslem, as if his mind were running in the same track, suddenly remarked: “You realize that I could take those two Swords from you at any moment.”
Amintor, who had dealt with Swords before, realized nothing of the kind. Except for the controlled presence of the dragon, he would have been tempted to laugh at the idea. Even for the dragon to reach him would take time, and he and Shieldbreaker would not be idle in that time.
But the Baron was not going to try to dispute the point just now. “Thereby depriving me,” he answered calmly, “of the pleasure of putting them willingly at the service of my senior partner-or am I to take it that our agreement is not yet formally concluded?”
The other laughed again. “Yes, perhaps I do need your skills at negotiation, Amintor. Very well, the agreement is concluded. Keep both your Swords, for now. They are likely to be of the greatest use upon a battlefield, and you are much more likely to find yourself on such a field than I am.”
The talk between the two men resumed, now in something of a new key. It soon turned to practical planning.
The magician said: “One of your first duties will be, of course, to raise an army, substantially larger than the mere guard force-about three hundred soldiers-I have at my disposal now. There are times when nothing but a real army will do, if one is to be taken seriously enough in the world.”
“Yes. The worm below us, for example, is capable of taking a city, or defeating an army in the field. But no matter how cleverly it is given orders, it cannot very well collect taxes, or guard an entire frontier.”
“We shall have to discuss the question of what exact size and composition of the force will be most practical. The recruitment, organization, and training will then be left almost entirely in your hands.”
“If such matters are to be done properly, they inevitably take a great deal of time.”
“Yes, time and patience. But until the army is ready, our greatest plans, as I see them, must be held in abeyance.”
Amintor was silent.
“You disagree?” Burslem asked sharply.
“I only venture to suggest that there are some great plans that by their nature do not require an army.”
Shortly after that remark was made, and before it could be amplified in discussion, the first conference between the partners was adjourned. There were matters, Burslem said, for which he had to prepare, and the preparations were of such a nature that they had to be accomplished without human company. So far he still had not taken up Amintor’s
hint about great plans.
* * *
The talk between the two men resumed on the following afternoon, in a pleasant camp above the canyon rim. Amintor had led his riding-beast up out of the canyon, and it now cropped grass under a tree nearby the camp. There were a handful of servants in attendance, all of them apparently quite human, who quietly and efficiently saw to their masters’ needs. The worm was gone-somewhere. Amintor had not tried to see where its great swath of a trail led.
Shortly after this newest session of talk began, Burslem abruptly asked to see Shieldbreaker. Amintor at once drew the Sword of Force and held it up. He was gritting his teeth, preparing arguments for a refusal to hand it over, but the wizard made no such demand on him, being instead content to gaze upon the blade from the other side of his comfortable pavilion.
“It still remains a mystery to me,” the magician commented at last, “how Vulcan lost it.”
The Baron, who had been actually on the scene-or very nearly so-when that loss took place, had also been for a long time unable to come up with any reasonable explanation. At last his meditations on the subject had convinced him of what the explanation was; but he offered no answers. He only related what he had seen while his new partner listened to the account with keen interest.
Amintor concluded: “And the giant figure with the Sword in its hand-I am sure now that it could have been no one but Vulcan-was still knocking and slashing about with the blade, in a fair way to knock the very building down, when I got out. But the more I think about what I saw, the more certain I am that, with very few exceptions, the men and women who struggled against him were not hurt by that Sword. Not even though it struck and pierced their bodies again and again.”
“We are partners now,” said Burslem solemnly, “and you may very well carry Shieldbreaker into combat in our common cause. Therefore I must tell you what I have discovered about it.”
“Which is-?” inquired Amintor with all the innocent eagerness that he could muster. He felt quite sure that the disclosure would tell him no more than he had managed to deduce for himself some time ago.
“That he who strives without weapons against the Sword of Force,” Burslem proclaimed, “cannot be hurt by it.”
“Ah.” The Baron blinked three times. “That may well be so. That would account for the exceptions.”
“I tell you that it is so. Think back on what you saw that day, and tell me if I am not right.”
Amintor did his best to look as if he were thinking back with great concentration. “You are right,” he said at last.
The other nodded. “Also, the wielder of the Sword of Force is well-nigh powerless to resist, by any other means, such an unarmed attack as you say these people were carrying out against Vulcan. Because the Sword, so long as he holds it, draws most of his strength into itself; nor will it allow him to let it go, as long as his enemies still confront him.”
That was an idea that Amintor had never worked out explicitly for himself. Yet now that he heard it stated clearly, he thought that it must be so; otherwise, how could that gaggle of struggling humans ever have overcome even a weakened god?
“A strange imperfection, that, for the ultimate weapon to have,” the Baron meditated aloud.
“Ah, yes. But do not forget that it is the ultimate weapon, when it is set in opposition to any other.” And the wizard was looking at him sternly now, as if he might be thinking: / see I shall have to do more of the mental work in this partnership than I had hoped.
In fact those identical words were running through Amintor’s
mind. Well, great skill in magic did not necessarily mean great wisdom, or even an efficient practical intelligence.
The Baron said: “I will not forget it.” Then, not wanting to overplay his effort to appear somewhat inferior in intellect, he added: “That is one reason why I never tried to use Farslayer, even as a threat, against the ruling house of Tasavalta, though I consider them my chief enemies. You know, a little old-fashioned blackmail. Dear Princess Kristin, send me ten thousand gold pieces right away, or you’ll wake up one morning to find your husband, as he lies beside you in your snug bed, is wearing a new ornament above his heart. Like a half a meter of god-forged blade.”
“You were probably right not to make the attempt.” Burslem nodded. “Farslayer would very possibly have failed to work against a man with Shieldbreaker in his possession. And, by the way, what was your other reason? You implied that there were two at least.”
This time Amintor allowed himself to display an intelligent smile. “I am not a dolt, Burslem. It didn’t take me long to realize that Farslayer is not the blackmailer’s weapon of choice against any well-loved man who spends most of his time surrounded by his friends. The threat in that case is unlikely to be credible. Of course, for a blackmailer with Shieldbreaker in his possession, matters may be somewhat different-then he can expect any return stroke to be warded off.”