The insect chittering took on an ominous overtone. “There is nothing new in this report.”
The man who sat by the fire frowned at the empty pan he was still holding in his right hand. Then he put it in the fire, concave side down, to cleanse it. He retained his calm. He said: “I am aware of that. The situation still holds. And tell him that the fight between the two contending clans, using Farslayer, did indeed take place just as some of his powers reported to him. Since my own last report I have visited the stronghold of the Malolo clan and made sure of that.”
“A small accomplishment. And you have not visited the clan of the Senones?”
“I am on my way there now. I intend to talk with the leaders of that clan tomorrow.”
“But the Sword is still missing,” said the demon, as if that were the most reasonable remark in the world to make, making a point that the man might never have thought of for himself.
“I am aware that the Sword is missing.” The man with an effort retained his patience. Suddenly he looked up from the fire, into the heart of the nearby aerial disturbance, as if to demonstrate that he was not afraid to do so. “That is why I am here.”
“The Dark Master requires that you shall find the missing Sword for him.” Again, the voice of the visitor seemed to imply that the human needed instruction on this point.
“I am aware of that, too.” Fear and anger contending in him, the man still managed to control himself. “The fact that the Sword of Vengeance is missing is not my fault.”
“Yet the Dark Master will require it from you.” There was no doubt about it now. The power hovering over the fire, polluting the darkness among the trees, was seeking to goad Chilperic, to provoke him to some uncontrolled response. After a time its unreal sounding voice began to repeat mechanically: “Yet the Dark Master-”
“Enough!” Chilperic stood up suddenly.
“You claim the right to give me a command?” The questioner sounded pleased at the idea.
“I do claim that right.” The man drew in a deep breath, then went on in a firm voice. “If one of us two must be subordinate to the other, then know that the lowly one will not be me. I carry with me a certain thing that I would have preferred not to show to you. But I will show it now, that you may know I am not subject to your terrors.”
And in his right hand the man suddenly held up a small object, a thing he had just drawn out from under his belt. It looked like a thin, folded wallet of peculiar leather, grayish and wrinkled.
He said: “Observe it closely. I have been entrusted with this by the Dark Master himself. I think you have seen it before. Whether you have seen it or not, you must know that it contains your life. If I were to hurl this little package into my fire now, or even hold it close above the flames-”
“I was but jesting, Master, when I challenged you.” And the voice of the demon was suddenly clear and silvery, a joy to hear. “Surely you know that. Can you not tell when one of my poor kind is jesting?”
“Aye, I think I can tell that. Rabisu, I did not want you to know that I held your life, for I suspected the knowledge might provoke you to more dangerous and subtle tricks than these you have played for mere annoyance.” Chilperic kicked his pan out of the fire.
“I, Master? To attempt to play dangerous and subtle tricks with one of your experience and wisdom? Not I, Master, never I. If-”
“Enough. Understand, evil babbler, that I keep this small pouch that holds your life close by me at all times. If you contemplate any serious action against me, I will know it, whether I am awake or asleep. That is part of the power of control our master has bestowed upon me. I will know in time to get out my knife and begin to carve-”
“Enough, Great Master! More than enough! From this moment forward I am your humble servant.”
“I rejoice to hear it.” The man sounded far from convinced. “But leave me now. Do not come to me again until I summon you, or the Dark Master sends you with a message.”
“I hear and obey.” But before the demon vanished, it caused a plate of delicious looking and aromatic food to appear sitting on a flat rock beside the fire, just where the other food had been.
The man picked up the offering and sniffed at it briefly. The dish was, or appeared to be, of fine porcelain. The food upon it smelled delicious. But in the next moment he threw plate and all behind him into the woods.
Then patiently, squatting beside the fire, he once again began to prepare his evening meal.
The next morning Chilperic was up at dawn, busy with breaking camp. Once that routine chore was accomplished, he mounted his riding-beast and moved on to the stronghold of the Sonones clan. This he had no difficulty in finding; it was a large rambling house which stood conspicuously upon a hill only a few kilometers away from where he had spent the night.
At the edge of the clearing surrounding this rural stronghold the traveler stopped briefly to survey the layout before him. Guards were in evidence, and in a few moments Chilperic had decided that these were not mercenaries, like the ones he’d encountered at the Malolo manor across the river. These looked more like conscripted locals: too poor and ineffective to be mercenaries.
They were also too nervous in their behavior, too close to the edge of fear, when there was no obvious danger in sight. Two of them, gripping their weapons spasmodically, challenged Chilperic as he rode slowly forward. Obviously the men were impressed by his clothing, his weapons, and his mount, all of which were of the highest quality. But still, to get them to do what he required, he was required to display some patience, firmness, and a certain degree of courage.
Eventually Chilperic was able to talk himself past the outer defenders of the fortified manor, by claiming to be a friend of two of the family members. Both of these people were, as Chilperic was secretly aware, very recently deceased. He of course pretended to great surprise and horror when the guards informed him that his friends were dead.
He managed also to drop a hint or two establishing himself as a bitter enemy of the Malolo.
Soon the officer of the local guards, finding himself outtalked and outthought, and not knowing what else to do, conducted this impressive visitor up to the main house. Once admitted there, Chilperic was soon able to confer with the new Tyrant of the Senones, a very young man named Hissarlik, who had taken over as head of the clan following the great slaughter.
Naturally Chilperic pretended to be greatly surprised and dismayed when he heard from Hissarlik of the carnage inflicted upon his friends and others of this household, scarcely a month ago, by the terrible Sword of Vengeance.
The two men sat talking in the main hall, on the ground floor of the manor. Two or three other surviving members of the Senones family were gathering around now to listen to the visitor, and look him over, and evaluate what he had to say.
One of the survivors present was a vengeful-sounding youth named Anselm, Hissarlik’s cousin. Anselm’s face tended to twitch, and he limped badly. Chilperic gathered the youth had been crippled in some atrocity performed by a Malolo gang several years ago.
Anselm’s sister or cousin Chilperic was not sure at first a young lady named Alicia, made an appearance also.
“A dozen dead on that night,” Alicia proclaimed. “And our aunt Megara still has not recovered her wits, a month later.” Her eyes glittered venomously. “We owe a huge debt to those Malolo slime, and we mean to pay it.”
“Your aunt Megara?” Chilperic murmured sympathetically.
“Mine, too,” said Hissarlik. “She saw her father he was the clan chief struck down before her eyes.”
“Oh, I see. Terrible, terrible.” And Chilperic, looking appropriately grim, gave his head a shake.
Hissarlik, the nominal leader of this immature and yet dangerous looking crew, seemed to have a few years to go before turning twenty, but still he gave a first impression of inward maturity. Only after Chilperic had talked with him for a while did he begin to suspect why this young man had been so far down the structure of leadership and responsibility as to be still surviving after that great exchange of Sword blows. This young fellow talked so boldly yet vaguely about the feats of arms for which he was responsible bragging about a raid he’d ordered two nights ago against a Malolo fishing village that Chilperic suspected that the problem, or one of the problems, might well be cowardice.