That, at least, must have been the tactic the sergeant had in mind. But he was never able to perform it. He passed within half a dozen strides of his target, turned, and was just beginning to raise a mace with which to threaten or to strike when the rear hooves of his mount slipped from the narrow trail. The cavalry beast, normally surefooted, screamed in an almost human-sounding noise before it fell. A moment later the sergeant’s mount had disappeared over the edge of a minor precipice.
The man himself managed to leap from his stirrups only just in time to keep from going with the animal. Instead he fell forward, awkwardly, and in landing struck his forehead on his own spiked mace. Once fallen, he lay facedown, without moving, except that the muscles of his back twitched convulsively.
“You see?” demanded Kebbi, who had been watching, as he turned back to face the others. There was a quiver of triumph in his voice. “You see? I am well protected.”
The Crown Prince had nothing to say. He could only hope that he might soon awaken from this hideous dream. The only comfort he could find in the situation was the knowledge that the main body of his small force, carrying with them the Sword of Mercy, were still moving away on the road to Culm, putting distance between them and their pursuers as rapidly as possible.
As long as the band of volunteers, no more than two dozen in all, had remained closely united on this mission, then the luck carried by one man might have served to protect them all. Now the luck of the Sword of Chance was gone from them. But with the start Coinspinner had afforded, the people who were carrying Woundhealer might still be able to get away to Culm. They had their orders, and no matter what happened to Murat and his rear guard of half a dozen, they would press on.
But what was he going to do about Kebbi? It was unthinkable that the young man could simply be allowed to ride away now that he had revealed his treachery. But what could be done against a Sword?
Another officer in the small group broke the brief silence. His voice, controlled with a great effort, still quivered with his helpless fury. “What will you do now, Kebbi? Where will you go? We’ll hunt you down, you know, sooner or later.”
The lieutenant made a gesture, shrugging with his arms spread slightly, as if to say: if you would hunt me, here I am. He did not appear to be in the least perturbed by the threat. “What will I do? Why, to begin with, I believe I’ll get myself out of your way here, and allow you to set up your rearguard defense-this looks like a good place to arrange an ambush. The Tasavaltans will certainly be here within half an hour. I suppose you still have some kind of a fighting chance against them, even without Coinspinner-a better chance than I had when I came up for promotion that last time.”
“Traitor! Vile traitor!”
The man who was now carrying the Sword of Chance ignored the denunciation. It appeared that he could well afford to do so. In no hurry to escape, he paused to look around at the configuration of the land. “Yes, cousin, you definitely have a chance, though they must know these mountains better than you do-farewell, then.” With that the treacherous lieutenant turned his mount and departed.
He was forty meters away, riding with his back to his former comrades, when one of the volunteer troopers, a dead shot with the longbow, gritting his teeth at seeing this scoundrel jog away unpunished, drew, aimed, and loosed a shaft aimed true at the center of the traitor’s spine. Just at the crucial moment the renegade, who never looked back, happened to bend aside to make some minor adjustment to his right stirrup strap. The arrow missed him by several centimeters. The man with the Sword continued to ride away, superbly unaware of death’s close passage. But of course the truth was that the arrow had put him in no danger of death at all.
At that same moment, no more than half a kilometer away in the direction of Tasavalta, General Rostov, having halted his advance for the moment, was grinding his teeth. All day long the General and his Tasavaltan cavalry had been suffering from bad luck, and it did not help that he knew the cause, and knew that matters were very unlikely to improve. Several landslides-none of them brought about by any sentient agency, Rostov was sure-had come down just in front of his troops, in places guaranteed to create maximum obstruction. Problems with broken harness had multiplied unbelievably for equipment that was well maintained, and a sudden attack of severe bellyache had felled one trooper who had to be left behind.
And now a rain that promised to be heavy had begun. Not that Rostov was entertaining any thought that he might be beaten. That was not his way. Nor were any of the men or women he had chosen for this pursuit resigned to defeat-at least none of them had yet been ready to admit such a thought in Rostov’s hearing.
The General, knowing of a shortcut alternative to a portion of the route that the fleeing Culmians had doubtless taken, had naturally enough led the Tasavaltan force that way. Had it not been for the landslides and other delays, they would have been in time to cut their quarry off. Even as matters stood, he thought that they had gained several hours on the Sword thieves.
Rostov had not been able to catch a glimpse of the enemy since leaving Tasavalta. But during the last kilometer or two of the pursuit, fresh animal droppings and other signs indicated that the Culmians were now very close ahead.
Karel the wizard had ridden for the most part in grim silence, but certain subtle signs indicated that he was not idle. The few words uttered by the old man suggested that he was having very little luck with any of his spells today; he was not accustomed to failure, but given the overwhelming nature of the magical opposition, anything except failure would have been surprising.
Now one of Rostov’s officers halted his mount beside the General’s. “Sir, I wonder if the thieves will be arranging an ambush for us? There’s a place just ahead that’s so ideal I doubt they’ll pass it up.”
The General grunted. He had been thinking along the same lines, and in fact that was why he had chosen this spot to halt. So ideal was the terrain ahead for such a tactic that Rostov’s instincts informed him that a Culmian ambush must be there, though there was no way to confirm its presence until the point was reached. A wind had sprung up in the last hour, fierce enough to ground the little flying beasts he would otherwise have used as scouts.
Having foresightedly brought Stonecutter with him, the General, after surveying the landscape more thoroughly, now put the Sword of Siege to work to open up a new trail. His intention was to bypass the probable ambush site narrowly, and, if at all possible, take the ambushers from behind.
One source of worry was the fact that Stonecutter invariably produced a pounding noise as it worked. But on reflection he thought this was not likely to prove a fatal difficulty. Out here in the open, Stonecutter’s working noise would probably be unheard by people who might be waiting on the other side of a thick wall of rock. And the same howling wind that was keeping the winged scouts out of the air would tend to rush the sound away.
The wizard, for whom nothing had worked properly since setting out on this pursuit, was now beginning to adopt a fatalistic attitude. “I fear that if Coinspinner is arrayed against us …” Karel, with a shrug, let his words trail off.
But Rostov, as usual when going into action, was ferocious and implacable. “You tell me that the enemy has powerful weapons. I say so do we. And I also say damn their weapons. If we are in the field against them, we must find some way to attack.” Almost as an afterthought, he added: “All of them won’t have stayed to entertain us in an ambush. Part of their force almost certainly is bearing Woundhealer on ahead-and it’s a good bet that those people will have taken Coinspinner too.”
Working with Stonecutter in the driving rain, a pair of the General’s men were already hacking an incline into the side of a cliff that would otherwise have been utterly impassable. They were incorporating stair-steps at the steeper parts, and making the whole wide and gentle curved enough for riding-beasts to use. Naturally they had begun their labors at a spot out of sight of the enemy above. One man wielded the Sword of Siege, cutting limestone like so much butter, digging stairs rapidly out of the side of a cliff, while his helper slid the freshly carved blocks away and over the edge.