Amintor groaned, heaving with his arms to drag himself forward toward the treasure. But now he could not move. His broken leg was caught, snared in some trivial trap of desert vegetation. When he tried to move, he blacked out momentarily with the pain. He drew breath, then let out a piercing whistle, calling his war mount. In the background he could see Mark raising Woundhealer, sparring with one of the mounted troopers. The trooper was hesitating to close against the unknown Sword, but still he managed to block Mark’s path toward the greater prize.
And, beyond that, on the crest of a small rise, was a huge mounted figure Amintor could recognize as that of Ben of Purkinje. A figure now cocking a crossbow, with a single simple motion of arms so thick that they made the weapon look like a child’s toy. And Amintor still could not move forward- He looked back, then centimetered himself backward on hands and belly and the one leg that worked. Farslayer’s dark hilt came again within his grip.
He saw Ben shoot a second trooper from the saddle, then
duck under the swing of a battle-ax, aimed at him by a third.
Amintor’s own specially trained war mount came near
enough to brandish its shod hooves defensively above its
fallen master- By all the gods, a bit of luck at last! The
beast crouched down when Amintor gasped another order at it. It got down low enough for him to hoist himself somehow aboard it, into the saddle.
Mark and Ben between them had now finished off their last opponent. Mark dashed past the Baron and grabbed up Shieldbreaker.
Baron Amintor, sweating and grimacing with the agony of his broken leg, of broken plans and broken life, hauled out Farslayer-he had had to sheathe it to get himself mounted- and began to twirl the Sword over his head.
He had known, for a long time, the proper recitation, and he began it now.
“For thy heart, for thy heart-”
Mark now had Shieldbreaker in hand. Quickly he tossed Woundhealer to Ben, who held it before him like a shield.
“Who hast wronged me-”
The Sword of Vengeance, howling, left Amintor’s hands in a streak of rainbow light.
Burslem, consulting certain indications, saw that now, as he had hoped and expected, his magic had completely overwhelmed the small Tasavaltan escort force that had been protecting the Princeling Adrian on his way back to Sarykam.
On separating from Amintor, the wizard had led the bulk of his miniature army to the place where, his magic assured him, Adrian was to be found.
Leaving his troops waiting on a small rise of land nearby, Burslem advanced alone toward the camp of the paralyzed Tasavaltans. His magic was in full control here, and he felt more than adequately protected by it.
Some of the riding-beasts and load beasts were on their feet, others lying as if dead or drugged. None of the humans were standing. Some sat on the ground, staring ahead of them with empty eyes as if they were drugged or dead. Others lay at full length, or curled up, eyes closed as if they were only asleep. Some people had been starting to put up a tent when they were overcome, and canvas, attached to a couple of erected poles, flapped idly in a small breeze.
In all that small section of landscape, as Burslem had intended, only one figure moved. He had withheld the full power of his magic from the Princeling himself. Valuable goods should not be damaged unnecessarily.
The child himself, small and golden-haired, had gone a little apart from all the rest to sit right beside the stream. Appearing unperturbed by what had happened to the members of his escort, the boy was dipping a hand into the current and pulling it out, over and over again, letting the water run out of the cup made by his frail fingers. With each trial he watched the result carefully, as if the way in which the drops fell sparkling in the sun might be the most important thing in all creation.
The child turned as Burslem approached, looking up at the wizard with pale blue eyes. At first those eyes stared almost blankly, but then they widened with growing fear.
Burslem, as he took the last few steps, was not even watching the child closely. Instead his thoughts were on Amintor-ought he to have trusted the newly-promoted Colonel Chou to be able to get the Swords from him? Burslem had, or thought he had, a magical hold on Chou that would make rebellion on the colonel’s part all but unthinkable-but one could never be perfectly sure of anyone or anything.
But Burslem had been too much afraid of Amintor, and of the Swords, to make the attempt himself. Prince Mark had Woundhealer with him. Let Amintor and him fight it out.
Burslem would be ready to face Swords again when he had his great worm back under control.
And where was the great worm now? Would his inexplicable loss of control over it bring on the Master’s serious displeasure? Burslem was in fact looking up and around at the sky again, even as he bent to snatch up the small body of his hostage from the riverbank.
His reaching arms passed through empty air. The ground he walked on had changed beneath him in mid-stride so that he overbalanced in his movement and nearly fell. Where was the child?
The sky above Burslem, calm a moment ago, was going mad, as was the land around him. Discolored clouds swirled about the zenith, and the ground heaved underfoot.
Only a moment ago those hills on the horizon had been arranged in a configuration drastically different from the one that they presented now. The land was stretching and recoiling, like fabric stretched upon the earth’s tremendous loom, with titans’ shuttles plying to and fro beneath.
The boy was gone. The stream at the wizard’s feet was boiling coldly, like water in a churn, with clouds like chunks of darkness coming up from it. Chaos, like gas, appeared to be escaping from the tormented surface in great bubbles.
Something stung Burslem in the back; he skipped away from the attack and turned to see how the altered plants of the riverbank were lashing at him with new arms and claws. Only now, belatedly, did the wizard realize that his own protective powers had been scattered like blown leaves before this change. The soldiers of his army, too, had scattered- he could hear them howling their terror and could see some of them in panic flight, going over the next hill in the altered land, and then the hill after mat. This, then, was the vengeance of the Master, Burslem’s punishment for some known or
unknown sin. It was useless to resist, he knew, but still he had to try, to fight for his survival.
His intended victim had disappeared completely, no doubt preempted in some way by the Ancient One himself. Burslem was standing all alone under a darkling sky, his feet rooted in the middle of an enormous and forbidding plain. The clouds were quiet now, and the river had vanished completely from this odd space that centered itself upon him. Even the distant mountains now seemed to have been ironed away.
The colors and shapes of everything that he could see were changing.
Even if he had somehow displeased his Master, why should punishment be visited upon him only now, when he had at last achieved a measure of success? The wizard could not understand it.
And now, gratefully but incomprehensibly, his scattered powers were coming back to him. Was there hope in resistance, after all? Or had the Master relented?
No. This was not the Master’s doing after all. Burslem could achieve no sense that the Ancient One was here at all, or acting here. And the overwhelming magic that had so wrenched out of shape the world around him had no real feeling of art to it at all. It felt like nothing but raw power. Like something born of rage and fear compounded …
On only a few occasions in his seven years of life had Prince Adrian sensed the presence of people who truly wished him harm. The presence of other human beings was usually a matter of indifference to him, though there were a few-his parents, a small handful of others-who were almost always welcome.
One instance of terrifying hatred, accompanied by direct violence, stood out sharply in his experience. It had taken
place on the day when he and the other children had gone to play in and around the caves. On that day Adrian had been a witness to the slaughter of the soldiers who had been detailed to protect them.
Not that the little Prince had been physically present at that scene of horror, or that he had seen it with his sightless eyes. Rather he had observed and experienced it in the same way that he saw the rest of the world around him: with the inborn vision of a true, natural magician. And even that vision had been blinded for a time by the horror of the killing of the guards. For Adrian that experience had been shattering.