Table of Contents
By the time Amberglas finished, both of her listeners were thoroughly alarmed. The Matholych was something very old and powerful, which destroyed people and animals wherever it moved. Only sorcery could fight it, though unfortunately no one seemed to know exactly what kind of sorcery. There were a great many different theories, but since the Matholych ate magic, testing them was apt to be rather awkward.
“I thought you said the Matholych ate people,” Crystalorn objected.
“Not at all,” Amberglas replied. “It eats magic, and there is quite a large amount of magical power in killing people and animals. Of course, getting power that way is a bit unpleasant, which may explain why it is generally regarded as Black Sorcery by everyone who doesn’t use it.”
Eltiron shuddered. Somehow, killing animals to get magic from their deaths seemed much worse than killing them for food. “And this thing is coming north?”
WHERE FANTASY TAKES FLIGHT™
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First published in the United States of America by Ace Fantasy Books,
The Berkley Publishing Group, 1984
Published by Firebird, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2008
Copyright © Patricia C. Wrede, 1984
All rights reserved
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA IS AVAILABLE
eISBN : 978-1-101-01990-0
For Joel and Beth, who listened with great patience to many improbable ideas, and for Nate, Pam, Steve, Kara, Will, and Emma, who wouldn’t let me get away with any of them.
ermain crouched low on his horse’s neck as he urged the animal to greater speed. Small branches stung his face as they whipped past, but he barely felt them. He could hear the sounds of his pursuers crashing through the brush behind him. Too close, they were much too close; he didn’t know this forest well enough to lose them. He shut the thought out of his mind and concentrated on escape.
The trees were becoming larger; good. He might be able to gain some ground once his horse was clear of this little bushy stuff. He dug his heels into Blackflame’s sides. The horse responded at once. Jermain felt the lengthening stride and knew a moment’s hope. No one in the Border Guard had a horse to match Blackflame. Perhaps he could get away from them before blood loss forced him to stop.
Expertly he guided his mount through the trees. He could feel himself weakening, but he could not spare a hand to staunch the blood. Desperately he spurred the horse once more. His eyes searched the forest for a shelf of rock, a stream, something he could use to hide his trail. He found nothing.
His vision blurred, but he did not dare to stop. He clamped his right arm against his side, clenching his teeth against the pain. The pressure might slow down the bleeding, or it might not, but the pain would keep him conscious a little longer. He could make it yet. The shouts and horns were fainter; he had gained a little ground.
The forest seemed to be thinning ahead; perhaps he could gain a little more time. He guided Blackflame toward the place where the trees grew farthest apart. A moment later, they broke into a large clearing. Jermain had just time to see the slight, startled figure standing in Blackflame’s path; then the horse planted its forefeet and stopped, so abruptly that it was forced back almost on its haunches. Jermain was flung forward out of the saddle and fell heavily to the ground.
Darkness and pain surged over him. Jermain forced them back. He couldn’t pass out now; he would lose too much time. “Dear me,” a voice said somewhere above him. “That was a rough stop. Are you hurt?”
Jermain opened his eyes and blinked in disbelief. A woman stood a few feet away, her back toward him. A heavy mass of steel-colored hair fell to the waist of her pale blue gown. Blackflame stood in front of her, trembling from exertion. The woman had one hand out, stroking Blackflame’s nose. She was talking to the horse.
? Jermain blinked again. He tried to roll onto his side so he could see more clearly, and a fresh wave of pain made him gasp. Apparently he had broken a rib or two in that fall. The noise attracted the woman’s attention; she turned and looked at Jermain. She was young; not a damsel of sixteen, certainly, but no more than thirty, and obviously a lady.
“It’s quite all right,” she said vaguely. “I will be there in a minute. Of course, you’re here, so it really doesn’t matter, but most people seem to feel better if I explain about these things.” She turned back to the horse, and her head tilted to one side in critical examination.
For a moment, Jermain lay motionless. He would have cursed, but he had no energy for it. He tried again to get to his feet; he made it to his knees. The woman turned around again.
“You really shouldn’t do that, especially if you’re not feeling well, which I can see you aren’t, what with that hole in your side and so on. I assume you realize that, though one can never tell. People can be so very odd. There was a man I used to know, who always wore his boots on the wrong feet for one day out of every month. So I thought I’d mention it, in case you didn’t.”
“I have to get out of here,” Jermain croaked, ignoring her jumbled speech. She had to help him or he was finished for certain.
“No, you’ll be much better off staying here,” the woman said. “Well, not here precisely, at least not for very long. No, certainly not long; you would be very uncomfortable, I am sure, and the damp would get into your wound, which would probably give you a fever, though sometimes it doesn’t.”
Jermain ignored her completely this time. He was having trouble balancing on his knees, and he knew that if he fell over now he wouldn’t be able to get up again. He thought about it for a minute and decided to crawl. That, he could manage. He dropped to his hands and knees, and began working his way slowly toward Blackflame, trying not to think about the pain in his chest. The woman made no move to help or hinder him. “Really, you are being very silly,” she said kindly.
The sound of shouts and hoofbeats came clearly to Jermain, growing quickly louder. With the last of his strength, Jermain lunged for Blackflame’s stirrup. He missed and sprawled painfully on the ground, fighting to remain conscious. The woman walked over and knelt beside him; he felt gentle fingers on his injured side. “If you stop jumping about like that, you probably won’t bleed to death,” the woman said, and six horsemen broke into the clearing.
For a brief, nightmarish moment, Jermain was certain he would be trampled. He did not even have enough strength left to try to roll aside; somehow the horses missed him anyway. The Border Guards pulled their mounts to a halt, forming a circle around Jermain and the woman who knelt at his side. The woman blinked at them.
“Dear me,” she murmured. “Such a lot of people.”
The leader of the group, a burly man with a captain’s braid on the front of his faded jacket, looked at the woman in surprise. Evidently he came to the same conclusion Jermain had, for he bowed respectfully before he said briskly, “Lady, I am Captain Morenar of the King’s Border Guard. This man is a dangerous criminal. You will, of course, oblige us by retiring at once. I would not wish to distress you by executing him in your presence, and we can’t risk letting him escape.”