Farslayer howls across the world For thy heart, for thy heart Who hast wronged me! Vengeance is his who casts the blade Yet he will in the end no triumph see.
Other verses of the old song had turned out to have truth in them, all too often for Amintor to feel that the warning in this one could be disregarded. He meant to be very cautious when it came to actually using Farslayer; but he had hoped to profit from the threat.
And then, in these matters there was always the nice question of exactly how much to demand from the victim. Amintor, an experienced hand, was convinced that it was at this stage that many blackmailers went wrong. They asked too much, so that the victim elected a desperate defiance rather than cooperation. And he ought not to have underestimated the Princess Kristin. He had carefully calculated-or miscalculated, as it now appeared-his demand for two pearls. Maybe, he could not help thinking now, if he had asked for only one …
Behind the Baron, the flap of his tent was rudely, without warning, jerked open from outside. An image of Burslem’s head, swathed in a purple turban, appeared in the magic mirror. “Come!” summoned the wizard’s voice imperiously. “We can delay no longer!”
Amintor had thought that he was waiting for Burslem, but he made no argument.
“Very well,” he replied, and gave his collar a last tug as if it were indeed his uniform that had been engaging his attention. As he turned away from the mirror he saw from the corner of his eye how it went out, like a blown candle-flame.
Squaring his shoulders, he marched out of the tent after Burslem, to where servants ought to be holding their riding-beasts for them. He He stopped and stared.
Forty meters or so ahead of Amintor, the great worm lay quiescent, its mouth closed, eyes half-lidded, enormous chin resting on the ground. A dozen humans, clambering on and around the vast hulk of its body, were attaching what looked
like a howdah-a roofed basket big enough to hold five or six people-on the back of what would have been the creature’s neck if it had had a real neck. The howdah was ornamented with rich side hangings, now furled out of the way, and it appeared to be stuffed with pillows. Standing on the ground in front of the legless dragon’s enormous nose, several minor magicians chanted and spun things before its glassy eyes.
Two more assistants held a ladder and beckoned to the leaders. Burslem was the first to climb into the basket, an honor that the Baron had no intention of disputing.
The worm, carrying the two partners in the howdah on its back, led the procession toward Tasavalta, with the army of three hundred following, and after that a baggage train. As soon as the march got under way, some of Amintor’s apprehensions about the worm-though not the worst of them- were confirmed. This despite the fact that, in its regular mode of forward travel, the head and what corresponded to the neck were preserved from the most violent of the side-to-side undulations that propelled the legless body forward.
The howdah, just behind the head, balanced aloof from almost all the lateral vibration. The mass of the body just beneath it poised nearly motionless, armored belly a meter or two off the ground, for a period of several seconds, long enough for a human to draw a breath; then, accelerating fast enough to jerk a rider’s head back, it shot straight ahead, more or less, for twenty or thirty meters. After the shudderingly sudden stop, there again ensued a nearly motionless balancing as the twisting body behind caught up. The cycle repeated endlessly.
The motion, and the sense of the earthshaking power latent in the enormous body underneath him, began to make Amintor giddy almost at once. He could easily picture the walls of
castles going down before this battering ram beneath him. As always, Shieldbreaker and Farslayer were both riding at his sides. The chance to use both of them, he was sure, would come in time.
Dizziness became transformed into a kind of giddy exaltation. In the silence of his own mind, the Baron cried out: With wizard, worm, and weapons of the gods, all to do my bidding, who shall stop me?
Exalting, in a way, the motion of the worm might be, but in practical terms such lurching back and forward made it all but impossible for the passengers to conduct any rational discourse. Accordingly, after a quarter of an hour, the partners called a halt and by mutual consent switched to more conventional transport. Climbing down from the basket, attempting to appear nonchalant, Amintor had the distinct sensation that his guts and possibly his brains as well had been churned into a homogeneous jelly.
Soon the whole column was under way again, the two leaders now mounted on riding-beasts. The monstrous, legless dragon, still of course under Burslem’s magical control, propelled itself along in the same direction, on a parallel course some hundred meters distant from the mounted humans. The sound made by the dragon’s passage was a continuous, hoarse crashing, a pronounced, slithering roar of displaced rocks and dirt and vegetation.
All human attendants were also keeping themselves at a distance from the leaders. Now at last Burslem could broach the subject he had been unable to discuss coherently in the howdah.
“It comes down to this, Amintor: we are both of us being tested.”
“Ah? How so?”
“The failure of your extortionary scheme and the escape of
my hostage render it all the more imperative that we succeed in this, our greater effort. It will not be well for us if we do not succeed.”
“I eagerly await the details.”
“Even as you applied to me for a partnership, so I too applied to one whose power stands above my own.” Burslem was on the verge of adding something to that, but refrained. His manner was uncharacteristically defensive, even worried; then- double failure had affected him even more than Amintor had realized until now. The wizard wiped his forehead nervously. Now it seemed that he had said all that he intended to
“What do you mean?” the Baron asked with what he considered heroic patience. “You have applied to someone as a partner?”
“I mean just what I say.” And the magician looked around again, as if he thought they might be followed by someone or something other than his own small army.
This news of another and even more senior partner was startling to the Baron at first. But when he began to think about it, certain matters that previously had puzzled him started to make sense.
“At our first meeting …” he began.
“Yes!” Burslem examined the sky carefully.
“When I first observed the presence on the high rock, I thought that it was merely one of your-familiars-”
“No!” Burslem swiveled his head back, glaring. “That was he, sitting on the ledge above our heads.”
“I had thought that-whatever it was up there-was some kind of beast. I thought I saw it fly away.”
“I only mean-”
“You did see wings, large wings, take to the sky. But let us have no discussion about shapes.”
Amintor remained silent for a few moments, listening to the methodical hoof beats of the riding-beasts and the serpentine roaring of the dragon’s progress at a little distance, scales scouring the land. But it would be too stupid to remain indefinitely in the dark on this subject. There were things he simply had to know.
“I meant no offense,” he resumed presently in an apologetic voice, “to whatever-whoever-was up there. But I had the distinct impression that it flew away. I mean, it looked to me just as if-”
“Yes, yes. The-ah-personal configuration of the Master’s body has-ah-become unusual. But what you saw-at least part of what you saw-was a griffin.” “A griffin.”
“Yes. The Master frequently rides on one.” Again the Baron remained silent for a time. The Master, hey? And he had thought that griffins were purely mythological. Now Burslem peered at him closely, as if aware of his doubts and reading his thoughts. “It would not be wise,” the wizard counseled, “for you to inquire too closely into the Master’s nature, shape, or other attributes. It is enough for you to know that he exists and that he has triumphed at last over his ancient enemies-even over Ardneh himself. And that we, in partnership with him, may conquer the world.” “Indeed.”
“Indeed. And that, if he should decide we are inadequate, he has but to lift his hand to replace us with other partners. In that case, it would be better for us if we had never been born.” Burslem choked just a little on that last word, but he got it out with an air of finality. Then he turned his gaze back to the sky.