A few shock troops, with Rostov himself and Karel among them, were to climb the newly created stair and take the enemy from the rear, while the bulk of the General’s three squadrons waited, mounted, ready to attack the ambush frontally at the proper moment.
And Rostov had one more weapon to bring into action. Calling a well-guarded pack-animal forward, he reached into one of its cargo panniers and pulled forth Sight-blinder. The Sword of Stealth looked an exact duplicate of its god-forged brothers, save for the different symbol, in this case the sketch of a human eye, that it bore on its black hilt. At least it looked so to the one who held it; gazing at the reactions in the faces of his people looking at him now, Rostov knew that each of them was seeing something or someone even more awesome than their General.
A few moments later, halfway up the newly created path with Sightblinder still in hand, waiting for the stonecutting to be finished, Rostov was beginning to wish that he had brought dogs, to help pick up the scent when other indications of a trail were lacking. Well, it was too late to worry about that now. Beside him, Karel had his eyes closed and was muttering-trying to ward off Coinspinner’s imminent counterblow, perhaps. That stroke was coming, no doubt, in some form, if the Sword of Chance was still in the possession of the ambushers. But there was nothing Rostov could do about it, and so he refused to let it worry him.
In a matter of only a few minutes the necessary rough stairs had been completed. The chunks of rock removed, sliced loose as easily as so many bits of melon, had been pushed tumbling into a depth so great that there was no need to worry about the sounds of their falling alerting the foe.
And now Rostov, disguised by the Sword of Stealth, and his handful of picked men, moving close past the pair of rock-cutters, wind and rain blasting in all their faces, were at the top of the new pathway.
No one in sight, as yet. But there was another little plateau not far above. The General, climbing ponderously and carefully, motioned sharply with his arm, and a young scout, much more agile than Rostov, clambered past him.
After peering cautiously through a notch at the top of the cliff, the lithe young soldier turned his head back and whispered: “No one in sight.”
That, as Rostov understood, could mean that he had chosen exactly the right spot for his outflanking movement; or of course it could mean that no ambush had been set here after all, and he and his men were only wasting time.
Silently he gestured a command, and in silence his small party of picked men moved rapidly forward, until all were solidly established upon level ground. Armed with the Sword of Stealth, he moved ahead of them. The actual location of the supposed ambushers was still above them and in front, but each side was now shielded safely from the other by an intervening wall of rock. From the point where Rostov had now got his men, however, the supposed enemy strong point could be outflanked by an easy climb along a natural formation.
At the next level place they reached, one of the men just behind Rostov, a good tracker, paused and murmured: “A lot of hoof prints. They seem to have split up here, General. One of them at least-yes, I think only one-rode off in that direction, to the west. And what’s this? An arrow, definitely Culmian, broken against a rock. It hasn’t been here long, but it wasn’t shot in our direction. I think it must have been aimed at the man who rode alone. Can it be that luck’s deserted them?”
Rostov squinted westward through the shreds of driving mist. “Well, that western trail lies open to us if we want to follow it. But I don’t think we do. Not just yet at least. No ambush there, so it’s not the route they’re fighting to defend.”
Karel, puffing with the climb on foot, but so far keeping up, asked him: “Can it be they’re splitting up in an effort to confuse us?”
“If so, it seems unlikely they’ll succeed. Let’s move on up the rest of the way, as quietly as we can. Then we’ll be behind their ambush if there is one. We’ll see how many of ’em are ready to stand and fight.”
A few minutes later, the Crown Prince Murat of Culm had seen the failure of the ambush he had so carefully and, as he thought, so cleverly arranged. Howling fiends in blue and green, only slightly outnumbering his own small rear guard, but with the great advantage of surprise, had fallen upon them from the rear. And at the head of the attackers, almost crushing resistance by sheer visual shock, had moved a perfectly lifelike image of the very Queen of Culm herself. At least two of Murat’s men had thrown down their weapons at the sight.
As the Crown Prince lay trying to regain his senses, after being felled by a blow to the back of his head, he could not at first understand how he had been overcome. His trap had been bypassed by people who must have somehow made their way up a sheer cliff, where he had thought that even a mountain goat would be helpless. And then, the seeming presence of the Queen-
Only when Murat saw a Sword in one of the attackers’ hands, and the thought of Stonecutter occurred to him, followed by that of the Sword of Stealth, did he begin to realize the truth.
In their planning for this mission, the Culmian intelligence had failed-they had never guessed that Stonecutter and Sightblinder would still be available to their new enemies.
Victorious Rostov, proven right in his tactical predictions, was still in a grim mood. His own men had suffered only minor wounds. Five Culmians were dead, and one, their commander, was taken prisoner. But neither Coin-spinner nor Woundhealer was here with the vanquished enemy.
The Crown Prince’s head wound proved to be not serious. He was conscious in time to watch Rostov’s cavalry squadrons come pouring relentlessly through the narrow passage he had almost died trying to defend. And presently he had recovered sufficiently to mutter a few words of anguished defiance.
Rostov, grim-visaged and surly, made little of the fact of his sole prisoner’s high rank. At the General’s orders, the captive was treated much as any other prisoner would have been, and as soon as he was able to stand again, he was tied into the saddle and stirrups of a captured mount.
“Where are the Swords?” Rostov then demanded of him. “I know that two at least were with you.”
Murat sighed. “Woundhealer is on its way to my Queen.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Karel, frowning, signed that he wanted to ask the prisoner a question. “And Coinspinner, Prince? I have good reason to believe that it is no longer with the other Sword.”
Rostov frowned in surprise on hearing this.
Murat shook his head. There dawned on him a vague hope that these men, whose outrage and fury he could understand, and who came armed with Swords of their own, might possibly be able to avenge the treachery of Kebbi.
He drew a deep breath. “The Sword of Chance is now in a traitor’s hands,” he said. Briefly he confessed how he had foolishly handed over Coinspinner, with his own hands, into those of Lieutenant Kebbi, and what his cousin had done thereafter.
The fierce winds that Coinspinner had somehow caused to arise were abating now, and it had become possible for the Tasavaltan beast master to get his winged scouts and messengers into the air. One flyer, a magical cross between bird and mammal, was sent home to Sarykam with word for the Princess on the progress made thus far. Others were dispatched to try to locate the fleeing Culmians.
Taking several items from his mount’s saddlebags, Karel went to work. Soon he was able to confirm to his own satisfaction that Coinspinner was now somewhere to the west of here, while Woundhealer lay to the south.
Wizard and General conferred briefly, and then the scar-faced Rostov turned back to his prisoner. “Well, Crown Prince. Can you ride?”
“Bound into this saddle as I am, it would seem that I have no choice.”
“That is correct. Prepare to do so.”
It was going to be a grim and uncomfortable ride back to Sarykam, Murat thought to himself. Though once there in the Tasavaltan capital, he vaguely supposed, things might not be too bad. Doubtless, once he was there, he would in some way be accorded special treatment because of his rank. Even a room in the Palace could be a possibility.
And whatever else happens to me, he thought, I am going to see more of that lovely, lonely Princess. Murat and his own wife had been for some time now on bad terms. Some part of him was curiously pleased that he was soon going to see Kristin again, even though she could hardly greet him with anything but the anger reserved for a treacherous enemy.