“I see,” said the Baron, and rode through another interval of quiet thought. But when he spoke again it was as firmly as before. “You may believe,” he said, “that you have now
told me all you want to tell me. But it seems to me that it is
“No?” Burslem, incredulous, frightened, and ready to
bluster, glared at him again.
“No.” Amintor did his best to sound firm and soothing at the same time. “Look here, if I am to cooperate intelligently, there is more I need to know. Just what is the nature of this person, or power, that we are serving? Just what does he, or it, expect from us? And what can we expect in the way of help in return?” Amintor’s earlier mood of exaltation was rapidly dissolving in the radiance of Burslem’s fear. And, even as the Baron spoke, he could feel his resentment continuing to grow, that he had been led into such a relationship with some unknown being, without the consequences of his bargain being explained to him beforehand.
But now Burslem too was growing angry. “It was you, was it not, who approached me and pressed me for a partnership? You did not demand of me then to know who else might be my ally, nor that all the possible consequences be explained to you ahead of time. Indeed, I would have thought you a madman if you had done so.”
And the Baron, though he scowled darkly as he thought this over, eventually had to admit that it was true enough.
Now again both rode on for a little way in silence. Then Amintor asked: “But tell me this-is this power you call the Master overseeing us now, this very moment? Is he somehow listening to our every word?”
“To the best of my knowledge, no, there is no such program of surveillance. The Master has many other matters to occupy his time.”
“Such as what? Or is that too impertinent a question?” Burslem was dourly silent.
“All right, then, I withdraw it. I am a reasonable man and do not pry unnecessarily. But, if I am to cooperate intelligently with the Master’s plans, and yours, I must have a better notion than I do now of what is going on. To begin with, where is our Master now, and what is his chief strategic objective?”
The wizard heaved a sigh. “I believe that he is somewhere far to the southwest of here. Even, perhaps, at the far edge of the continent, ten thousand kilometers away.” “Ten thousand!”
“But one who rides on a griffin can be here and there in a matter of only hours.”
“Really,” said Amintor. “What does he-” Suddenly he frowned and nodded past his companion. “And where is the great worm going now?” The gigantic creature had suddenly taken a diverging course, bearing more to the south.
Burslem looked too, and altered his own course accordingly, waving a signal to his army to do likewise. “We must keep close to the worm now. It possesses certain senses that will be of great help in locating our objective.”
Then he turned in his saddle to glare at Amintor again. “As to what the Master requires of us, all I know with any certainty is what you have already heard: we are to proceed against Tasavalta. The method is up to us, so long as our efforts are forceful enough to distract the rulers of that land, keep them from undertaking any adventures elsewhere. Bringing the house of Tasavalta into complete submission would be ideal, but it is not essential. For some reason it is of great importance to the Master that someone or something connected with that land be neutralized, prevented from interfering with his own plans elsewhere. Also, there is one of the Swords that he particularly desires to have.”
“Not one of mine, I take it.” If that were the case, the Baron assumed that an effort would have been made to get it from him already. “No, nor one of Prince Mark’s either. The Master is
especially interested in the Mindsword, of which both you and I, I think, have had some experience in the past. I take it you have no clue as to its present location?” “No, none,” Amintor murmured abstractedly. “You and I, to be sure,” said Burslem, “play a secondary role in the Master’s designs. But if we do well, greater things will be entrusted to us.”
“I see,” said the Baron again.
“As to what help we can expect from the Master against Tasavalta, I should say that, for the moment at least, the answer is: very little.” “Hah.”
The wizard looked at Amintor severely. “I know more than I have told you, but at the moment 1 am not at liberty to share my knowledge. I would remind you, however, that as between the two of us, I am the senior partner. Let it suffice for you that I am satisfied.”
“You are the senior partner,” agreed Amintor meekly. “And if you are satisfied with our arrangements with this one who is called the Master, I should be foolish to proclaim myself discontented.”
“Exactly.” Burslem, grimly satisfied at having made his point, sat back in his saddle. In his mind’s eye he could see himself hauling Shieldbreaker out of its scabbard and riding away, letting those who wanted to stop him try it, washing his hands of the whole business. But he wasn’t sure what such a move would accomplish for him, except that it would certainly make enemies of two very accomplished wizards.
And, there was the worm. How fast could it move? If Burslem sent it after him, perhaps it would catch him and gobble him up, along with his two Swords and his riding-beast to add a little body to the snack.
Amintor rode on in silence. Since his first meeting with Burslem, he had been confident of his ability to manage the
magician. But the mysterious Master added new dimensions. An ancient foe of Ardneh, still alive? Amintor did not believe all that he had just been told.
But the complications were growing. He was getting in deeper, but this wasn’t the time to break away. It would have to be sometime when the worm was distant, if he decided to break away at all.
Under the edge of his new turban he could feel his forehead sweating.
ZOLTAN sat his load beast, looking down on something totally unexpected, in the shape of a mighty cruciform scarring of the earth. He had come to a place where the trail of the great worm intersected itself.
There was no other way to read the sign, no doubt that that was what had happened. It was plain also that the new segment of the trail was much fresher than the old one; the loop that the worm had traveled before returning to this spot must have been a lengthy one. Nor was there any difficulty in telling in which direction the new trail led.
He moved first to scout out the area surrounding the intersection. Running parallel with the new trail, at a distance of about a hundred meters from it, was another broad obvious track, this one instantly recognizable if still surprising. It had been left by what Zoltan took to be an entire army-certainly many more riders than were in the Tasavaltan patrols whose signs he had observed much earlier. Nor was the army Tasavaltan. Here and there a clear hoof print, showing the form of an iron shoe, indicated that very clearly. And a few bits of equipment, worn or broken and cast aside, offered confirmation of this conclusion.
They were headed in the same direction as the great worm in its most recent passage, and certain signs indicated they
had passed through here at about the same time. Were they hunting the creature? Or might it have been hunting them? Zoltan’s imagination, when he beheld that scoured-out track, could create the image of a monster whose proper prey was armies.
He shuddered a little, despite himself, and regardless of the fact that Dragonslicer hung at his side.
All he could do was continue what he had started, the job of following the monster’s trail; if there was an enemy army ahead of him as well, he would just have to do his best to avoid it. He moved now with a new urgency and a new alertness, for neither monstrous creature nor enemy army could now be much more than a day ahead of him, and might be considerably less. The signs in both cases were unmistakable.
And both army and worm were headed east, in the general direction of Tasavalta.
Praying for some kind of guidance, Zoltan forged on.
Ben and the small column of the command that had been entrusted to him were moving in the same direction, toward Sarykam and home. Ben was not praying for guidance, but muttering oaths under his breath as he listened uncomfortably to the blind Princeling’s babble from inside the nearby litter. Today the mad crooning and muttering was almost continuous. At least the child did not sound as if he were suffering. Crazy, maybe, but not in pain.