Soft Ripple, as Zoltan observed without being able to understand the fact, was still accompanying the boat. It occurred to him to wonder whether the village ahead had once been her home and possibly Black Pearl’s also.
“Are you armed?” Mark asked Yambu, when they had been under way for a minute in silence.
“Only with my wits,” she answered calmly. “In this most recent epoch of my life I have forsworn the use of steel. Except of course in dire emergencies.”
“Then probably you are better armed than I, my lady,” Mark admitted. “Still there are times when steel has its uses.”
“And such a time, you think, lies close ahead of us. I think it quite likely you are right.”
Mark looked at his nephew. “If the Sword comes within reach of anyone in Malolo manor, they are likely to dispute its ownership with us. Especially if Bonar is still alive.”
Zoltan nodded, and made sure that his own short sword and his knife were ready. Then he squinted ahead, looking along a western reach of river. The other boat, the one that had preceded them carrying Ben, Bonar, and Gesner, must by now be very far ahead indeed, Zoltan, shading his eyes, was unable to see it on the river at all.
“Quite likely,” said Mark, as if reading his nephew’s mind, “they’ve already landed.”
Ben, Bonar, and Gesner had indeed docked and come ashore at the fishing village. There their oarsmen had vanished at once among the huts, pausing only long enough to tie up their boat. The other inhabitants of the village, Ben noticed, were keeping out of sight also, as if perhaps they expected trouble.
Gesner, Ben, and Bonar, the latter looking around him in vague apprehension, at once started walking inland from the village, along the road that led toward Malolo manor.
Ben’s presence put an obvious damper on conversation, a fact which did not bother him in the least. The three had traversed perhaps half the distance to the manor in near silence, when Gesner suddenly held up a hand, and said something to stop his companions.
Now Ben too was aware of a foretaste of magic in the air. He turned, looking high, and then he saw the rainbow flicker coming toward them.
Bonar, looking in the wrong direction, was just starting to ask a question.
Meanwhile, Chilperic and his crew of mercenaries, who had finished making their way back upstream along the southern bank, had begun to move cautiously into position for an assault. With the demon still missing today Rabisu’s absence had a kind of finality about it Chilperic had just about abandoned the idea of attacking the manor directly, at least by daylight. Instead he hoped to be able to catch some of the enemy out in the open, or, failing that, to gain at least a good idea of the lie of the land before nightfall.
Koszalin, on Chilperic’s orders, had deployed his ten men in something like a line of battle. They were combing a half-wooded area between the manor and the village. Thus Chilperic and those with him were also in position to see the Sword as it came hurtling down from the sky to land somewhere nearby.
Chilperic cursed, knowing how difficult it was to predict, from such a brief glimpse, exactly when the Sword was going to strike its blow, what roundabout path it might follow on its way to the chosen target, or exactly who or where that target was.
Bonar was lying on his left side in the middle of the path, his arms outflung. His fingers twitched, but he was stone-dead, with Farslayer run clear through his pudgy body from front to rear. The youth had been taken unawares, cut off in mid-sentence. Actually his mouth was still open and he looked surprised. He had managed to get within a few minutes of his home before Hissarlik’s dying throw reached him and struck him down.
Gesner, who had been walking close beside the youth, bent over his dead body and reached for the black hilt.
“Don’t touch it, wizard.”
Stopping his fingers before they reached their goal, Gesner looked over his shoulder to see Ben standing very close to him, his own utilitarian blade already drawn.
The huge man went on: “I warn you, wizard if you really deserve that name the Sword is mine.”
Gesner, without saying anything, straightened up and moved away from his fallen leader. The magician’s hands were empty or were they? Now they appeared to be slowly curving into a gesture aimed at Ben.
Ben did not appear to be impressed. He advanced on the other man, his own drawn sword still leveled. “I’ve seen too much of you to have much respect for your magic at this late hour now stand back. I mean you no harm, man.”
Gesner the failed magician, now failed again, dropped his hands and stood back for the moment.
Ben had just sheathed his own sword, and started to reach for the black hilt, when Gesner’s hands swept up again, and a jet of something as colorless as heat seemed to flow from his extended fingertips. Something that brought pain and tingling
The big man had not been taken unawares, and his reaction was instantaneous and strong. He moved one long stride to Gesner, and a backhanded blow from his huge right fist knocked the small man sprawling. The slow-developing spell was broken before it could reach anything like full power.
Ben needed only a moment to twist the Sword of Vengeance free of Bonar’s ribs and backbone. Then, with Farslayer in hand, he was standing over Gesner, somewhat surprised to see that the single bare-handed blow had killed him. Gesner’s head was twisted to one side in a way that indicated his neck was broken, and his eyes looked unseeingly across the litter of the forest floor.
Well, no more problems there. Ben straightened up, looking about him in the scrubby forest. He had the Sword, for Mark. Now all he had to do was get away with it.
Faint noises indicated that a number of people were coming in his direction from the west. It sounded almost like an advancing line of infantry, clumsily trying to be quiet.
Ben drew his own sword again, and dropped Farslayer into the sheath at his side. While the Sword rode there it would be impossible for him to drop and lose it; and his own blade, good weapon that it was, would serve him as well in a fight. Holding it drawn and ready, he got himself moving, away from the two fallen men, and back in the general direction of the fishing village. He knew that Mark, coming after him, would probably land there first.
Back in the great room of Malolo manor, the sisters Rose and Violet had been arguing, and had at length managed to agree that they ought to order out some of their retainers to await their brother, in case he needed aid. Now a panicked servant came running into the house, saying that he had seen the mercenary force trying to encircle the manor.
Tough, fanatical Violet was stimulated by this news, and announced that she was ready to lead a motley force of servants if she could raise one into the field herself. Meanwhile Rose, more resigned than frightened, threw up her hands and retired to her room.
And at the same time Chilperic, Koszalin, and their men, alerted by certain sounds indicating a brief scuffle not far ahead, changed the course of their advance. Not realizing it at first, they were starting to close in on Ben.
On first sighting the huge man, they were spurred into action at the sight of the unmistakable black hilt that rode above the scabbard at his side. They were running, spreading out to encircle him, when Tigris hurtled into view, low in the sky, riding the griffin on which she had come to Senones manor.
She skimmed close above Chilperic while he ducked and yelled threats at her, then circled him and his small force higher aloft.
“Who has it now?” she shouted down to him.
“Bitch! Treacherous bitch! Where is my demon’s life? What have you done with it?”
“The life of your precious demon has been ended by the Sword as Hissarlik’s was cut short, as your own life would have been, had you still been wearing Rabisu’s next to your ribs. I saved you by taking it away, you fool!”
Chilperic snarled something incoherent at her.
The griffin’s beating wings hurled the air of its passage into his face. Its rider turned her head and shouted down at him: “I have authority from Wood to take command here when I see fit. And I am exercising that authority now. Do you understand me?”
Meanwhile Koszalin had been standing nearby, looking keenly from one of the disputants to the other.
“Orders, sir?” he now asked of Chilperic, calmly enough.