Meanwhile, the monster was moving only intermittently, and he had a little time available. Enough to open the medical kit that was still tied to his belt and extract from it a certain glass bottle that he had noticed earlier. This one was labeled AGAINST THE HARM OF FIRE AND ACID. Dragons, according to everything that Zoltan had ever been told about them, had plenty of both those powers with which to assail their opponents.
He smeared himself-face, hands, then as much of his skin inside his clothing as he could cover-with the vile-smelling stuff of the bottle, using the entire contents. Only then did he wonder if he ought to have saved some to give to his uncle. Well, it was too late now.
The dragon had been moving again, and now it reared its head over the small rise just in front of Zoltan, not fifty meters from him. There was no doubt that it saw him now.
The immediate effect was that the load beast panicked and threw Zoltan off just as he was trying to leap back into the saddle and before he really had time to panic, himself. Furious anger rose up in him and for the moment drove out fear. Dragonslicer was humming in his hands now, the full undeniable power of a Sword at last manifesting itself for
The monstrous head confronting him raised itself, eyes staring intently-then lurched away, angling to one side at the speed of a runaway racer. It was as if the demonstration of power in the Sword had been enough to warn the creature
The dragon changed its course slightly again. It was still headed for the farm, but it was going to detour around Zoltan
to get there. Zoltan stood frozen for another moment, watching-then
he looked for his mount. But the treacherous load beast had run away.
He chased it and was able to catch it-the animal would exert itself fully, it appeared, only when the dragon was coming directly at it.
Back in the saddle, he rode desperately. His mount shied at the last, and he couldn’t get close enough to the worm to strike. Quickly he leaped from the saddle and ran forward desperately.
The monster was almost past him now-but he managed to reach one flank of it, back near the tail, and there he hacked into it boldly with his humming Sword.
Amintor had been provided by Burslem with good directions as to exactly where to find Prince Mark. Now the Baron, with Shieldbreaker and Farslayer as usual at his side, and what he trusted were a dozen good cavalrymen at his back, was very near the calculated point of interception. Given the force at Amintor’s disposal, it seemed to him very unlikely that he could fail to take the Prince, most probably alive rather than dead; but he was wary of Mark’s ability, and of the unfathomed powers of the Sword of Mercy as well, if the Prince should have that weapon with him.
When Zoltan hewed into the dragon’s flank, the blade in his hands parting the armored scales like so many tender leaves, the beast’s reaction came fiercely, though somewhat delayed. The vast scaly body looped up over his head and came smashing down, making the earth sound like a drum and knocking Zoltan off his feet with the violence of the shock that shook the ground beneath them. The dragon did not turn or pause to see whether he was dead or not. The spur of Dragonslicer had been enough to send it into flight.
Its first flight was not straight toward the farm, which gave Zoltan time to recover and catch his load beast again.
Mounted again, he was once more able to get between the indirectly advancing dragon and the farm. The load beast was not unwilling to be ridden in the dragon’s general direction, or at least no more unwilling to carry him that way than any other. Only when Zoltan tried to get it to go within what it considered actual striking distance did it rebel.
The dragon now had reached yet another of the river’s pools, and halted there. Zoltan could hear it drinking and saw it twisting the forward portion of its snakelike body in an apparent effort to splash cooling water on its sun-heated upper scales.
Zoltan urged his mount as best he could to get in front of the dragon. It was here or nowhere that he must stop the beast; he was now almost within a stone’s throw of the farm at his back.
He jumped from the saddle, Sword in hand.
Now he saw that, whether by accident or design, a bight of the huge scaly body had been thrown across the stream, making a crude dam. A deeper pool than before was rapidly forming upstream from this obstruction, and now the dragon’s head was lowering toward the pool to drink.
I will kill it now, thought Zoltan, or I will never kill it.
Raising the humming Sword above his head, he ran silently toward the drinking beast.
Dragonslicer, Dragonslicer, how d’you slay? Reaching for the heart in behind the scales. Dragonslicer, Dragonslicer, where do you stay? In the belly of the giant that my blade impales.
THE Baron was belly-down in the desert, watching from concealment Prince Mark’s slow mounted approach. The Prince, as Burslem had predicted, was quite alone. Behind Amintor, the dozen troopers who had been detailed to go with him were presumably making their own preparations to carry out the ambush. The riding-beasts of Amintor and his party were in concealment too, being well-trained cavalry mounts that would lie down and jump up on command.
The Baron turned his head partway in the direction of his men, and whispered softly: “Let him ride right into us, if he will … save us the trouble of a chase. That’s a powerful mount he rides.”
Then Amintor, his attention caught by some sound or perhaps unwonted silence among his men, turned to observe them more carefully. He saw them all in the act of divesting themselves of their weapons.
In the blink of an eye he was on his feet, with a Sword out in each hand. He had thought ahead of time about the possibility of some such move as this. Prince Mark could wait.
Shieldbreaker, because it could be relied upon to manage itself in a fight, was in the Baron’s left hand. And Farslayer, in his right fist, was ready to exert its magic too-if any such magic should become necessary beyond that of sharp steel and skill.
The lieutenant gave terse orders, and a few of the troopers, some brandishing weapons and some not, tried to close in on Amintor. The Sword of Force, hammering loudly, picked out their weapons as they came against it, and disposed of them, along with a limb or two. And Farslayer, working superbly if in mundane fashion, took care of those who tried to attack Amintor unarmed.
Half a minute after it had started, the fight had reached a bloody standoff. Three men were down, dead or bleeding to death rapidly. Amintor could not chase down all his enemies, nor did he dare relax his vigilance. But there appeared to be no way for the surviving troopers to overcome him.
The officer changed his tactics and tried negotiation. He called to the Baron: “Our master Burslem says if you give up the Swords, we are to let you go.”
“Yes, of course. To be sure. And what has he promised you and your men?” No one answered.
“Whatever it is, I can give you more. And I will do so if you, or any of you, will switch your allegiance to me.”
Refusal was plain in the officer’s face. Mixed emotions, with fear and doubt predominating, ruled in the faces of the other men.
The Baron looked them all over as well as he could. Then he picked out one of them and locked his gaze on the man’s eyes. “Sergeant? What about you, ready to join me? Or are you determined to collect one of these god-forged blades of mine in your guts?” The Baron paused, then once more addressed them all. “I repeat, those who are loyal to me are well rewarded. Not like these three on the ground. If any of you know anyone who served in my army under Queen Yambu, you know I speak the truth.”
He got no immediate response, but now the officer was worried. The situation, balanced.
When the break came, Amintor was almost as much surprised as the lieutenant was. The sergeant approached the officer as if for a private conference-and then struck at him without warning. The officer managed to parry most of the force of the sword cut, sustaining only a light wound, and in the next instant striking back. In the next instant a bloody melee had broken out, the troopers in two opposing factions hacking and slashing at each other energetically.