Partly with the goal of avoiding that sound for a time, partly out of general impatience, Ben spoke a word to the cavalry officer, who was now his second in command, and then cantered on ahead of the column, taking a turn at scouting.
A few minutes later, while trying to discover the best way through a large outcropping of rocks, he was distracted by a
sudden jumping of the land beneath his feet. It felt to him like an earthquake, or the sudden manifestation of an elemental.
In another moment Ben was confronted by the bizarre figure of a small wizard wearing a strange robe covered with symbols of obscure meaning.
This apparition, crouched among the jumbled rocks, waved to Ben and shouted at him: “Go and find Prince Mark! Hurry! Prince Mark is in trouble and he needs your help.”
Ben turned his mount around. The image he was looking at was obviously just that and not an ordinary human being. He judged that the only way to deal intelligently with it was to get magical assistance.
As soon as he had turned his mount, the ground beneath the hooves of the riding-beast shifted back again, so he was left facing the same way as before.
The strange magician-figure, in front of him again, cried out: “Don’t run away, Ben! Listen to me!”
“I have my orders,” Ben managed to get out, and tried once more to turn his steed.
But he had to listen to more shouted pleadings before he was allowed to leave.
When Zoltan saw that the fresh trail he was now following was bringing him back to the river-or some river-once again, his spirits rose as before. He was looking forward to possibly encountering the mermaid again.
The trail was going upstream now, along what looked like the same river he had followed downstream only a few days earlier. He wondered if something out of the ordinary could be happening to the geography of the land through which he traveled.
At least it did make sense that the dragon should need the river, as the maid had told him. Here was another indication, a place where the beast had obviously tried to submerge
itself, to wallow in the stream, though the channel here must actually be smaller than the diameter of its own body. Both banks and the vegetation on them were spattered and coated with dried mud for many meters, and a small pool had been scraped and scoured into a pond.
The thrown-out mud looked dry. But when Zoltan probed at a thick clot of it with his fingers, the center was still moist. Certainly not very many hours could have gone by since the creature passed here.
The Sword at Zoltan’s side remained quiet as he crumbled the dried mud between his fingers.
He had no more idea now than when he had left the farm, of where his uncle Mark might be. The idea was beginning to grow on Zoltan that he might be the one who had to wield the Sword of Heroes when the time came. He could neither accept the idea nor reject it. It was just there, like a boulder in his mind.
Doggedly he stayed with the trail until nightfall, doing his best to overtake the thing that had made it.
A few hours before sunset he came to a place where at last the parallel trail of the human riders diverged from that of the dragon. And here the mounted force had split into two unequal groups, which had then ridden off in different directions.
Now there were three diverging trails. Zoltan stayed with that of the great worm.
After dark he once more made his fireless camp beside the stream. And once more, to his joy, the maid appeared, popping up briskly out of the water shortly after he had wrapped himself in his blankets and lain down.
“I was afraid to show myself during the day,” she began calmly. “The leather-wings might have seen me again.”
“I have seen none of them,” said Zoltan.
“That is good. You know, don’t you, that the dragon is
not far away now? Under water I can hear him burbling and splashing. I think he is resting right in the river somewhere.”
Zoltan swallowed, with difficulty. “Does it ever move around at night?”
“Oh yes. Sometimes … listen! It may be that you will be able to hear it moving now.”
He concentrated, listening intently. There was the sound of the river itself, and he could not be sure of anything else.
The maid asked him: “Where is your uncle?”
Zoltan shook his head. “I still don’t know. I have no more idea than I did before.”
“What are you going to do, then?”
“I don’t know that, either. Except that I must keep on following the dragon. Once I get within sight of it, keep it in sight. And, when Uncle Mark shows up, give him the Sword.”
“You will not try to use the Sword yourself?”
“Not if I can help it,” said Zoltan after a pause. “He’s- he’s much better at it than I am. He’s done it before.”
“I will weep for you,” the maid breathed, “if you are killed.” He didn’t know what to say to that.
In the morning Zoltan started before dawn; there was no need for a great deal of light to follow a trail like this one. He came in sight of the dragon’s tail as it was heading out of a huge thicket.
In the growing daylight he recognized the farm ahead, its distinctive boundary of trees no more than a kilometer away. And he saw that the dragon was now heading directly for it.
BURSLEM, after much heavy conjuring in the firelight of their nightly camp, announced to Amintor that the time had come for them to split up their forces.
“Is it permitted to ask why?”
“Prince Mark and his child are both within our reach, but they have separated. The Prince himself is now coming toward us again, either alone or with a very small escort; while the child is being taken on toward Tasavalta. If you, with a small squad of cavalry, can intercept and capture Prince Mark, I, with the remainder of my army, will overtake the force escorting Adrian.”
“Where is the Sword of Mercy now?”
“Mark does not have it.”
“Ah. And why this particular division of labor?”
“Because, my friend, you are the one equipped with Swords and should not need an army to protect you against one man-and I feel more comfortable with most of my army where I can see it. Would you like to exchange assignments?”
Amintor thought it over. “No,” he said presently. “No, if matters are as you say, I can take him prisoner. What of the worm?”
Burslem demonstrated anger. “Some kind of magical interference has come up. It’s interfered with my control.”
“Karel, perhaps, is striking at us?”
“I suppose so. At any rate, we can’t count on the worm just now. Neither can the enemy properly control it, of course; and I expect it’ll give them something to think about besides us as it goes ravaging their countryside.”
“You’ve lost control of it?”
“I’ve said that, haven’t I?”
The Baron stared at him. “What if the demon-damned beast had got away from you while we were riding it?”
Burslem glared back. “I had it more directly in my grip then-anyway, nothing happened. You have your orders. Carry them out.”
Zoltan, meanwhile, was doing the best he could to get himself and Dragonslicer in front of the great worm and to keep the creature from getting at the farm. There was no mistake; it was the same farm; he could recognize the gate and certain trees of the boundary, even at this distance. But even as he tried to get his load beast to gallop, he was confused by the fact that the farm did not seem to be at all in the same place, geographically, where he remembered it as being. He had ridden for days away from it, and here he was already back again. He had not, he was sure, been traveling in a great circle ever since he left. That would have been too elementary an error. Yet there they were, the boundary hedge and gate, just as before …
But now, they lay directly in the dragon’s path.
The monster, fortunately for Zoltan’s plans, was in no great hurry. If it was yet aware of him and his load beast, it was so far willing to ignore their presence. It let him get himself and his beast in front of it.
Once having reached the position he wanted, he dismounted and paused to let his load beast rest and to await the tiling’s advance. Zoltan could still nurse a hope that the dragon
might, after all, decide to go off somewhere else, avoiding the farm altogether.