Выбрать главу

Kyrtian V'dyll Lord Prastaran led his skirmishing band of lightly armed humans in person; very few Elvenlords would ever have put themselves in that inferior and vulnerable a posi­tion. Especially now, with humans, halfblooded Wizards and younger Elvenlords all in revolt against the Great Lords, the mere notion of leading a group alone, without the presence of a

fully collar-controlled and loyalty-spelled bodyguard, was something that would never occur to most of them.

Kyrtian cared nothing for their opinions, since little secret was made of the fact that they cared nothing for his. His reputa­tion was as eccentric as his hobby, and that was the way he pre­ferred things. His Grandfather had eschewed politics when the Great Lords disdained his advice; by now, staying out of poli­tics was something of a family tradition, and Kyrtian was quite prepared to continue that tradition.

At this moment, as always when on maneuvers, all of his at­tention was focused on his battle-strategies and his surround­ings, to the exclusion of everything else. His initial battle-plan was so vague that at this point he was rather recklessly making decisions moment by moment. He suspected that his opponent was counting on that, assuming that Kyrtian's well-known cau­tion would also make him inflexible. It was a reasonable as­sumption; Kyrtian just hoped that he could prove that it was an incorrect one. That was the point of this exercise, after all. This was the first time he had ever met an opponent in anything other than a set battle. Where was the right balance of caution and initiative? Nothing in all of his books and studies had dealt with that magic formula.

Sweat trickled down the back of his neck, but a headband under his helm kept it from dripping into his eyes. He felt a brief flash of superiority as he climbed the steep and rock-strewn slope before him with no sense of strain, not even an in­crease in his breathing. How many of the pampered Great Lords would be able to do as much? Certainly he was sweating, but he wasn't in the least tired, and if at last he managed to bring his skirmishers to a fight, he would be as ready for action as any of them.

Senses alert for the least sign of warning, he picked his way one careful step at a time through the sparse underbrush of the forest. His men spread out in his wake, carefully following his example. His sword was out and ready in his left hand; that would give him a little advantage against an opponent, should one suddenly appear before him, but not much. The enemy

fighters lurking somewhere ahead knew him and some had fought hand-to-hand against him before.

The enemy—all that he knew for certain was that they were here in his patch of pristine, old-growth forest, and that their numbers were equal to his. The most logical place to find them, the weathered remains of an ancient fortification, had been empty. He assumed now that they probably planned to set up an ambush for his skirmishers somewhere; they knew he was com­ing, and he doubted that they intended to make a pitched battle of it. In their place, he wouldn't.

His advantage was that he knew these woods as well as his opponents did; he should, since everything for leagues around here belonged to him. He had made a mental tally of all the ob­vious places for an ambush, and he hoped he could approach such places from unexpected angles, and with luck, catch the foemen by surprise.

An ambushed ambushhardly sporting, I suppose. He smiled, knowing the expression was hidden by his helm. Well, first he would have to pull this off. Then he would worry about whether it was "sporting"—assuming he'd won the encounter, of course.

After all, it is the victor who writes the histories, and he is the one who gets to determine what is fair, after the fact.

A movement to one side caught his eye; only one of his men, trying to shoo away an irritating fly with a minimum of obvious movement. They knew better than to slap at insects, lest the sound betray them to the enemy, and he felt sorry for his human fighting-men. For all that he sweated as heavily as any one of them, insects seldom plagued elves, perhaps because elves, not native to this world, did not smell "right" to the pesky bugs.

Kyrtian froze and raised his hand to signal to his men to do likewise, as he thought he caught a murmur of voices up ahead. Holding his breath, he closed his eyes and concentrated on listening.

Perhapsperhaps. He opened his eyes again, and consid­ered their present location, frowning as he did so. He and his fighters were approaching a ridge overlooking one of the lesser-used pathways through the forest. The ridge was an obvious lo-

cation for an ambush placement on the part of his foes, if they assumed he and his men would take that path below. It would be very difficult for his party to creep up upon the enemy un­seen if that was where they were.

He raised his right hand above his head to describe three cir­cles with his index finger. The fighter immediately behind him made the same motion, and in due time, a slightly built, lithe young fellow by the peculiar human name of Horen Gosak moved cautiously and noiselessly into place beside Kyrtian.

They locked eyes, Kyrtian's green ones meeting the human's brown; Kyrtian nodded towards the ridge in the direction of the voices and made the hand signal for ambush. Horen nodded, and leaving his sword and sword-belt behind in Kyrtian's keep­ing lest they catch in the brush, dropped to his hands and knees to snake his way up towards the ridge, moving so low to the ground that he looked like a crawling lizard.

It was always a wonder to Kyrtian how young Horen man­aged to disappear into landscape that was so barren of obvious cover. Sometimes he wondered if the ability was some unique application of the so-called human magics. That was entirely possible, and would have caused far more scandal among the Great Lords than Kyrtian's little eccentricity of leading his fighters in person. Although it was the law that all human slaves be fitted with collars that inhibited their own peculiar magic, no slave on the Prastaran estates had ever worn anything but a dec­orative collar since the Elvenlords came to this world. And no "slave" on the Prastaran estates had ever been a slave in any­thing but name.

Humans make very poor slaves; Grandfather tried to tell his arrogant compatriots that, and they wouldn't listen, and now they're paying the price for ignoring such sage advice. The first Lord Prastaran had retired to the estate he'd been allotted, pro­ceeding there to put his own theories to. work in regard to the aboriginal inhabitants of the place. Before he drowned in a flash flood—while nearly twenty of his devoted "slaves" also drowned in frantic attempts to save him—he had formed the loose confederation of primitives that had been living on the property into a thriving and prosperous community that not

only accepted him as their overlord, but were absolutely de­voted to his welfare.

Kyrtian's father had inherited that community, and had cher­ished and fostered it, recognizing it for the valuable resource that it was! Now it was Kyrtian's to guide and guard, for in guarding the humans under his protection, he was all too aware that he was guarding his own prosperity.

His wandering thoughts were abruptly recalled by Horen's return, as the young man wriggled into cover beside him. With the aid of twigs, pebbles, and a few hand-signals, Horen swiftly laid out the disposition of the enemy forces ahead.

Kyrtian studied the arrangement for several moments, grind­ing his teeth a little in frustration. As usual, the enemy com­mander showed brilliant skill. It was an appallingly superior disposition. Obviously one couldn't approach them from the front or the rear, so what did that leave him?