On the second day after passing the village, paddling at dawn, the Prince began to hear a roaring noise ahead.
Rapidly the volume of the sound increased. Its source could not be far distant.
Cautiously he paddled around a bend, staying near the right bank. Just ahead the river plunged into a waterfall, its steady thunder giving rise to a fine watery smoke. Adrian wasted no time in getting himself and his boat out of the water.
GENERAL Rostov and the wizard Karel, unable to decide on any entirely satisfactory way to immediately dispose of the high-ranking prisoner they had acquired in the high mountain pass, had decided to bring Crown Prince Murat with them, tied into his saddle, when they set out to follow the trail of the Culmian traitor Kebbi.
Rostov was not minded to explain any of his decisions to the treacherous thief he was compelled to drag along. But Karel, conversing with the Crown Prince at a rest stop, informed his royal captive that there had simply been no men to spare to escort the prisoner back to Sarykam. Most of the three cavalry squadrons were in hot pursuit of the Culmians who were fleeing toward their homeland with Woundhealer; only half a dozen troopers had come with the two Tasavaltan leaders on Coinspinner’s track.
Their pursuit of Kebbi and the Sword of Chance had certainly begun without delay, and the pursuers kept up a brisk pace. Or rather they tried their best to do so. Hardly had the site of Murat’s capture been left behind them when the first of many avalanches came down just ahead, wiping out a substantial section of the trail.
The fading thunders of this landslide could not quite drown out the voice of Rostov, as he profaned the names of many gods; when the tumult had subsided and the dust was beginning to settle, Karel, puffing, pointed out to the General with some satisfaction that this fresh obstacle represented a confirmation of his own magical divinations, a sign that they were certainly on the trail of Coinspinner.
Rostov’s reply was not congratulatory.
Before the little party had worked its way around the slope rendered impassable by the first avalanche, another avalanche could be heard from the direction in which they were trying to advance. And, when that one too had been bypassed, yet another. Still they were able to make progress; both Tasavaltan leaders, and one or two of the cavalrymen among their escort, knew these mountains extremely well. And Coinspinner, perhaps, was not vitally concerned about them yet; they were still too distant from its current owner to pose him any serious threat. If and when they managed to close the gap substantially, doubtless the measures taken against them would be stronger.
Still, there was no thought of abandoning the pursuit that had just begun. Nor was it necessary, in the opinion of their most knowledgeable scout, to follow their quarry’s trail very closely.
“I’ll tell you how it is, sir,” this trooper explained to Rostov. “A stranger here, looking to get out of the mountains in this direction, is pretty much going to have to go one way, the way we’re going now. And whether he takes this branch of the trail here, or that one up there that looks like a different trail but really isn’t, he’s pretty certain to come out in the same place in the end. And I know where that place is. A sort of crossroads. A kind of inn stands there, or did a few years back, though it’s not a place where I’d especially want to spend the night.”
The General nodded grimly. “Then lead on, get us to that crossroads as best you can. Better that than try to track him along these mountainsides, with a Sword trying to bury us at every step.”
Now progress became faster. Still the newly chosen route was longer, and it was necessary for the party to spend one night in a cold mountain camp before they reached the inn.
Karel did his best to defend their camp with spells before he went to sleep, and all through the night a guard was posted.
Murat, still tied by the hands and by one foot, was allowed to dismount and sleep under blankets.
In the morning, progress continued to be rapid. Rostov was now carrying Sightblinder packed away behind his saddle, where it was in easy reach should he decide to call upon its powers. Before many hours of daylight had passed the small party reached the inn, and a shabby place it was.
A few men, including one who must have been the innkeeper, emerged from its dingy doorway to squint at the visitors. In silence, and with an initial lack of enthusiasm, they studied the arriving party, which consisted of nine riders, most of them Tasavaltan troopers in blue and green, and included one prisoner in orange and blue, who was bound to his saddle and stirrups.
Under Rostov’s determined glare the proprietor of the inn soon began to smile, and put on an air of hospitality. “Beg your pardon, sir, but I see you have a prisoner.”
“And what of it?”
“Nothing, sir, nothing at all. Except that I know the whereabouts of one other man who wears a livery of orange and blue, the same as his.”
Having received the promise of some kind of a reward if he cooperated, and the threat of a very different kind of treatment if he did not, the innkeeper hastened to lead his visitors to a shed, even more ramshackle than the main building and located somewhat behind it.
A riding-beast that looked too healthy and strong to be the property of any of these locals was revealed inside the shed when the door was opened.
“One of your cavalry mounts?” asked Rostov, turning to his prisoner.
“Unbind me,” said Murat, “and I will try to make the identification for you.”
The General glanced at the wizard, who nodded, almost absently. Then Rostov nodded too, and in a moment a trooper had ridden up beside the Crown Prince and started to loose his hands.
In another moment Murat was able to dismount freely. Limping with cramped legs from his long confinement in the saddle, he crossed the yard and entered the shed, where he could study the riding-beast at close range.
“Yes, this is the mount Kebbi was riding when he left us.”
In another moment, when the door to the next room was opened, the former lieutenant himself was discovered, immured in a dark and cell-like hole. Kebbi looked up from where he was lying on a broken cot. He was in his undergarments, and for warmth he clutched around his shoulders a coarse rag that looked as if it might have been discarded somewhere around a stable. At the sight of Murat, his face went through a whole series of expressions, all quickly suppressed except the last, a look of bright curiosity.
“Where is it, villain?” Murat demanded without preamble.
Kebbi stood up. “Where is what, traitor?”
“You dare to call me that!” A Tasavaltan trooper restrained the Crown Prince from stepping forward to strike his enemy with his fist.
Kebbi spread his hands in a gesture of innocence as he looked around at the others. “I appeal to you, gentlemen. Do I look to you like someone who has the Sword of Luck in his possession?”
“Frankly, you do not,” said Karel, frowning.
At this point the proprietor of the inn cleared his throat. “Are you interested in my bond slave, here, gentlemen?” he inquired of the Tasavaltan leaders, in what was meant to be an ingratiating voice. “I can let you have him cheap.”
Rostov shot one glance at the would-be salesman, who immediately fell silent.
Murat noticed that one of the hangers-on was already wearing Culmian boots that very likely had been Kebbi’s.
“I suppose you tried to steal something here, too?” he demanded of his cousin. “And they repaid you in kind?”
Kebbi ignored the question. He was undertaking what sounded like an earnest and sincere explanation. “General Rostov, is it not? Sir, I wish that I could hand you the Sword that our people so treacherously stole from your Princess. But alas, I cannot, though that was my intention. I would not lightly disobey the orders of my superior officer.” Here he glanced at Murat. “But what he did in Sarykam was unforgivable, and would not, I am sure, have been countenanced by our Queen. Traitor is, I think, not too strong a word.”
Before Kebbi had finished, Murat was almost beside himself. Experienced diplomat that he was, he found himself for once speechless with rage and indignation.
Kebbi, with an air of confident innocence, was going on to explain that he had been trying to persuade these local people to send a messenger to Tasavalta, whose leaders would assuredly be glad to ransom him.
Rostov broke in bluntly. “I don’t believe you. What has happened to Coinspinner?”