And now today the sight of a scavenger bird or two, rising in bright sunlight from somewhere among the rocks that formed the lip of a precipice, suggested to Chilperic that some large creature was lying dead in that location.
To get anywhere near the place Chilperic was forced to dismount, then edge his way forward carefully on foot, until he was standing on the very brink. Forty meters or more below him, the Tungri grumbled and fumed eternally, sawing its way down through rock, day after day infinitesimally deepening its gorge.
Wrinkling his nose at the smell of death, chilly and stale in the spring air, Chilperic reached the last necessary foothold, braced himself with one arm on a rock, leaned over and looked down. Not two meters below him he saw the startling white of bone, protruding from amid coarse hair and decaying flesh. Leaning forward again, even more precariously, he was able to assure himself that the victim had not been human, but a riding-beast; there were no saddlebags, but the saddle and other tack were still in place. The discoverer could remember seeing leather worked in similar patterns when he had poked his curious nose into the Malolo stables.
Interesting. And more than that.
His heart beginning to beat faster, Chilperic looked around him carefully. He clambered back and forth along the rough brink of the cliff, probing into every nearby crevice of rock. He even managed at last to get close enough to the dead animal to move what was left of it, using his own sword as a lever. He shifted the carcass enough to see that there was no man’s body, and no resplendent Sword, pinned underneath it.
Cosmo’s riding-beast, quite probably. Almost certainly, if Chilperic could find Cosmo’s initials or some other identification on the leather. But still the Sword of Vengeance was nowhere to be found.
Reluctantly Chilperic returned at last to his own tethered mount. He swung himself up into the saddle and sat there motionless for a moment, gazing thoughtfully down toward the thundering stream below. It might be a hopeless search down there at the bottom of the river, but then again it might not.
He could, of course, employ Rabisu in the search. But how much help the demon would be was problematical. Chilperic had for some time suspected that the foul creature might prefer, after all, that the Sword never be found. Its own life, however carefully hidden, might be as vulnerable as the life of any puny human to that blade.
Probably, Chilperic concluded, it would be best not to try to use the demon at all. It was his understanding that there were other creatures nearby, just as intelligent and much more docile, who would be even more at home along the bottom of the river.
Chilperic, on leaving the place where he had discovered the dead riding-beast, hastened to recross the river, and long before nightfall he had returned to the headquarters of the Senones clan.
Today the homegrown militia guards stationed around the perimeter of the clearing in which the Senones manor stood were not as grim and tense as they had been yesterday. And today, Chilperic noted as he handed his riding-beast over to a groom, there was more ordinary activity around the place, as if things might be beginning to return to normal.
But even before he had passed through the gate into the inner grounds, this last impression was firmly contradicted by an apparition in the sky.
Suddenly some of the people around him were gawking upward. Following the direction of their collective gaze, Chilperic beheld a marvel. Outlined against a fluffy cloud was a huge griffin, spiraling in descent. A single human figure was mounted astride the creature, which possessed the head and wings of an oversized eagle, and the four-legged body of a lion. Such creatures were extremely rare, and their flight depended more on magic than on the physical power of their wings.
The griffin’s descent was quick, and not many people actually witnessed its arrival. Which was probably just as well, for most of those who did were petrified. The winged beast came down gently and peacefully enough, to land on the flat lawn immediately in front of the manor. Though not one person in a thousand among the general population ever saw one of these uncommon beasts, Chilperic was no stranger to the sight nor was he, actually, very much surprised by the arrival of a griffin at the Senones manor just now. He had a good idea who the creature’s passenger might be. The gates in the inner wall of the manor had already been opened to admit Chilperic, and he strode in, practically unnoticed. The new Tyrant, who seemed to have been waiting on the lawn, quite possibly to welcome him, had now instead turned his back on Chilperic and the gate for which he could scarcely be blamed and was gaping like a yokel at the unexpected aerial arrival.
The human figure who had just arrived was at this instant in the act of dismounting from the griffin’s back. This was a diminutive female with her long blond hair bound up closely, dressed in a close-fitting jacket and trousers, what looked like eminently practical garb for hurtling through the air astride a monster’s back. The woman was very young to all appearances, at least and very pretty. She could only be the healer that Wood had promised to send.
Meanwhile the griffin was crouching on the lawn in the pose of a docile cat. Still, it managed to impress and even cow most of the local people who were quickly gathering at a respectful distance to behold it. Chilperic thought that the monster’s presence might well worry the more thoughtful among the local people, offering as it did more evidence that whether they liked it or not they were now closely involved in the affairs of the great world.
The young woman with the neatly controlled blond hair and the small backpack immediately decided whether through deduction or divination which of the people present was the clan leader. For the moment she ignored everyone else, including Chilperic, and came walking straight to Hissarlik. Her movements possessed a grace that Chilperic had seldom seen matched. Genuflecting briefly before the Tyrant in a gesture of great respect, the new arrival introduced herself, in a soft voice, as Tigris, physician and surgeon.
The Tyrant, staring distractedly at this beauteous arrival as many a more experienced man in his place would have done murmured and mumbled something in return. Then he recovered himself sufficiently to take the young lady formally by the hand and bid her welcome.
“Thank you, my lord.” The healer’s eyelashes fluttered demurely, and her gaze became downcast. “Will you now have a servant show me to my quarters my room will be next to my patient’s, I pray and provide me with a maidservant to attend me? Soon I will be ready to examine the patient.”
“I, uh. Yes, of course.” The Tyrant, recovering further, clapped his hands and gave the necessary orders.
Meanwhile the griffin, as if it had received some hidden signal, spread its wings again at a closer look those limbs appeared to be more reptilian than avian and soared suddenly into the air. The gawking crowd fell back even further, but Tigris ignored the departure of the beast completely. She had now raised her eyes and was gazing, in a way that might be thought inappropriate for a physician, at the man she had greeted as her lord.
Only when she turned away to follow the servant who was to lead her to her quarters did her gaze brush Chilperic’s. It was a cool, appraising glance. He supposed it likely that the lady had come with some special orders from Wood having to do with himself. He would have to take the opportunity to meet with her alone as soon as it was practical.
Hissarlik’s grim young cousin, Anselm, limped from somewhere to intercept the healer just as she was about to enter the house. At first Chilperic thought that Anselm intended to stop her from going in, but after a few moments’ conversation they entered the manor together.
As for the Tyrant himself, his gleaming eyes followed his new guest until she was out of sight. Only then did he turn, with a sigh, and speak to Chilperic. “Though I have scarcely met the woman as yet, I am deeply impressed. Your master, the Ancient One, certainly fulfills his promises quickly.”
“Oh, indeed he does,” Chilperic assured the Tyrant. “I would not be likely to attach myself to any master who did not.”
“Nor would I be.”
Now the two men, by unspoken agreement, began to stroll. They passed around the side of the sprawling house, and entered what must once have been a flower garden, though it was sadly neglected now.
As they walked, Hissarlik started to discuss his plans for the future. His only real goal, it appeared, was to determine just how, working together, he and his new friend Chilperic were going to wipe out once and for all those infamous Malolo brigands across the river.