In a matter of only moments, the lieutenant and a few who remained with him retreated. First one group and then another reached the riding-beasts, and in a few moments more the fight, now a small cavalry skirmish, had swirled over the next dune.
Discipline, thought Amintor, could never have been good in Burslem’s little army-and now, doubtless, it was never going to be.
“After them! Finish them!” he shouted orders after his new allies.
Now the thudding noise in Shieldbreaker quieted and Amintor was able to sheathe the Sword again. His whole left arm felt strange from holding it, but he was confident that the sensation would soon pass.
And now, with distractions out of the way momentarily, for the Prince. Quickly Amintor looked back in the other direction. There was Mark, a hundred meters or more away, evidently out of earshot of the noise of fighting. Mark was upwind, which would have muffled the noises somewhat. The Prince had dismounted, as if he meant to camp for the night, though nightfall was still hours away. No, now he was tugging at one of the legs of his mount. It looked like there was some trouble with his riding-beast’s hooves or shoes.
Amintor, studying the figure of the Prince as well as he could at the distance, frowned as he observed that Mark was
apparently unarmed. Oh, there might be a knife at his belt. Doubtless there would be a weapon or two somewhere, but… Burslem had said that Woundhealer was now with the caravan escorting Adrian, and doubtless that was the case.
Now, the Baron judged, was the time for him to act boldly, before his own treacherous escort, or any part of it, could reappear. He rose partially from concealment and hurried forward, alternately trotting and crawling. For the moment he preferred to leave his own mount behind, so he could get closer without being seen.
When he was about fifteen meters away from the Prince, he stood up straight and called out in a loud voice for Mark to surrender.
Mark jumped to his feet, giving little sign of surprise. Apparently unarmed, he stood silently facing Amintor.
Shieldbreaker was thudding faintly again, and the Sword’s hilt stung the Baron’s wrist as his arm swung past the scabbard; he feared that the weapon was going to leap out into his hand. Let him once grasp the hilt of the Sword of Force now, and he would be unable to cast it down whatever Mark might do. And Shieldbreaker would never be effective against an unarmed man. To be safe, Amintor unbuckled the belt that held the Sword of Force at his side, and let belt and all fall to the sand.
Next the Baron drew Farslayer-obedient, controllable Farslayer-and smiled. He advanced upon his foe.
Mark waited until Amintor was quite near him. Then the Prince bent swiftly, plunging his arms into the sand at his feet. When his hands emerged, they were holding the hilt of a bright Sword.
Amintor assumed the weapon was Woundhealer, though there was no way he could be absolutely sure. Damn Burslem for an incompetent wizard!
“I suppose there is some logic in your behavior,” he remarked, doing his best to conceal his rage.
“As much as in yours, I suppose. The next time you try to set an ambush, you should bring quieter companions.”
The Baron glanced back over one shoulder, directing a contemptuous look in the direction of his vanished patrol. “Your advice is good, Highness-had you no trustworthy friends either, that you come seeking me alone? Or is it some other object that brings you here like this? I cannot think why you would want to encounter me again.”
“Can you not?”
“Then tell me, bandit chieftain, how you worked your trick.” Mark’s own quiet rage could be heard in his voice.
“Bandit chieftain!” The Baron genuinely felt offended. “Come, Prince, you should know by now that I have advanced a step or two beyond that status.”
“Really? You have acquired fine new clothing since I saw you last, I see that much.”
Amintor frowned. He still did not understand Mark’s presence here, and it bothered him that he did not. “Which trick do you mean?” he called to Mark. “It must have been a good one if it has brought you here seeking me with such determination.”
The Prince, his face quite unreadable, stared back at him for a long, silent moment. At last Mark said: “The Sword of Healing will not heal my son.”
“Ahh.” Amintor let out a long, soft breath. Then he added, more to himself than to Mark: “Then it may be, after all, that there are powers in the world that can overmatch the Swords.” It was not a reassuring thought for one who was relying upon Shieldbreaker against tremendous wizards.
“I have no explanation,” the Baron continued aloud, after a moment’s thought. “But then, I gave you no guarantees
when I traded you that Sword. No, Prince, I worked no trick upon you in that way. There would have been no point in my doing so. I was content to see you go your way in peace-of course, now that you are here-”
The Baron had weighed the probabilities as best he could. Now he raised Farslayer and rushed in to strike. His object was not to kill but to disable, and he had little fear that Woundhealer would be able to do him any direct harm. Anything was possible, but a man had to be ready to take some risks.
But Mark, younger and more agile, evaded the rush. Then, running to get past his opponent, he dashed toward the spot where Amintor had cast Shieldbreaker down.
The Baron had not been careless, and had not let himself be drawn too far from where he had dropped that most effective Sword. In fact he had even begun to count, in a way, on Mark’s trying to get to it. Still, it was a near thing. Amintor, hurrying back to defend his treasure, had to lunge desperately with Farslayer at the last moment to keep Mark from getting his hands on the Sword of Force. Mark nearly lost a hand in reaching to grab it up but managed to pull his arm out of the way of the slash in time, and danced away unhurt.
Still, Amintor did not want to pick up Shieldbreaker and bind himself to it indissolubly for the duration of the combat. Farslayer would do just as well for now. Holding the Sword of Vengeance ready, he slowly advanced once more.
Mark held his ground, waving Woundhealer gently before him in a two-handed grip.
The imponderables brought into the situation by the Sword of Mercy slowed the Baron’s feet and stayed his hand. If he were to throw Farslayer against it, what might happen?
Then, behind him, he heard the unmistakable sounds of several riding-beasts approaching, at a slow pace.
He backed away from Mark until he felt he could risk a turn-and-look. Then he allowed himself to relax slightly; it was the sergeant and three of the men who had been with him. One of them at least was wounded, pale and swaying in the saddle.
The sergeant, after pausing to take in the situation, spoke. “The lieutenant”-he paused to spit-“and those who followed him are dead, Sir Baron.”
“Good,” said Amintor, breathing heavily. “Now we have another problem here.”
“Indeed we have, sir. Though perhaps it is not the one you think.”
Careful to keep Mark in one corner of his field of vision, the Baron turned again and regarded the sergeant silently.
“Colonel Chou, at your service,” said the mounted man with stripes on his sleeve. “I am, I may say, a trusted friend and adviser of the Magister Burslem. At the moment I am charged with collecting all the Swords for him-the late lieutenant was to undertake the same task for our former commander, Imamura, but he, as you can see, has failed. I shall not fail. Both of you, put down your Swords, please. The Sword that would help you now is at the moment out of reach of either of you, I see.”
Amintor, with his eye on the speaker’s midsection some thirty meters away, began to swing Farslayer in an arc. It was a certain killer, having the serious disadvantage that with one use of its power it was gone. Once the erstwhile sergeant was dead he would have to deal with the other people somehow Only too late did the Baron see the practiced motion of the slinger’s arm on the mount beside the newly self-proclaimed colonel. With a shock of mind-splitting pain the smooth stone struck the Baron on his left leg, near the knee. He went down before the impact, as if the leg had been taken off completely. The world was a mosaic of red and black before him.
Yet he would not, could not, give up. Farslayer was gone, out of reach somewhere, fallen from his grasp before it could be launched. He crawled forward, dragging himself by his hands toward Shieldbreaker But at the same time the former sergeant was galloping forward like a trick rider, reaching down from his saddle to grab up the Sword The shaft of a small arrow sprouted from the rider’s turban, and he fell from his saddle, rolling inertly toward the prize. His riderless animal swerved away.