The Misenchanted Sword
Dedicated to Richard Evan Reis and the old gang at P.I.C.
The marsh stank, with a sharp, briny stench that seemed to fill Valder’s head. He stared out across the maze of tall grass and shallow water for a long moment and then reluctantly marched onward, into it. The ground gave beneath him; his boot sank past the ankle in gray-brown muck. He muttered an obscenity, then smiled weakly at his own annoyance and slogged forward.
The enemy, he knew, was no more than an hour behind him. The marsh was nothing but a minor inconvenience by comparison.
To his left lay the open sea, and to his right was endless empty forest that was probably full of northern patrols and sentinels, human or otherwise. Behind him somewhere were the three northerners who had been pursuing him for the past four days. Ahead of him, wet and green and stinking, lay the coastal marshes.
He could, he supposed, have turned to the right and avoided the marshes, tried to lose his pursuers in the forest, but he had been running through forests for four days without being able to shake them off his trail. At least the marshes would be different.
After half a dozen long, slow steps through the mud, he struck a patch of solid ground and hauled himself up onto it; dirty seawater poured from his boots, which had not been watertight in more than a sixnight. The marsh grass rustled loudly as he pushed his way across the little hummock; he froze, peered back over his shoulder, and, seeing nothing but the unbroken line of pine trees, sank to the ground for a moment’s rest.
The marsh was probably a mistake, he told himself as the foul smell saturated his nostrils. He could not move through it without making noise, it seemed — the rustling grass was far more audible than the crunch of pine needles, and the suck of mud wasn’t much better — and the enemy sorcerer almost certainly had some sort of spell or talisman that augmented his hearing. Even the other two northerners might have hearing more than normally acute; from what he had seen of their movements, Valder was quite certain that at least one of them was shatra — half man, half demon, though human in appearance. That eerily smooth, flowing motion was unmistakable.
All three might be shatra; the demon warriors could disguise their movements if they chose. One of his pursuers was a sorcerer, but he had heard it said around the barracks that some sorcerers were shatra. It seemed grossly unfair for a single enemy soldier to have both advantages, but life, he knew, was sometimes very unfair.
Nobody knew exactly what shatra were capable of, but it was generally believed that they possessed magically acute senses — though not, probably, up to the level a good sorcerer could achieve. Valder had to assume that the northerners chasing him could see and hear and smell far better than he could.
He had managed to stay ahead of the enemy patrol for four days now, but it had been due to luck as much as to anything else. He had exhausted his last few prepared spells in diverting the pursuit, but none of the diversions had lasted very long, and his company’s wizard had not provided him with anything useful for actual combat. Valder was supposed to be a scout, after all; his job, if he encountered the enemy, had been to run back to base camp to warn his superiors, not to fight. He was not interested in a glorious death in combat. He was just another of Ethshar’s three million conscript soldiers trying to survive, and, for an ordinary human against shatra, that meant flight.
He had been able to travel at night as he fled because the greater moon had been almost full when the chase began, but the wizard-sight he had been given when he first went out on his routine solo patrol had worn off six nights ago.
Thick morning fogs had helped him, as much as the moon had; he was running blind to begin with, with no intended destination, and therefore was not concerned about losing his way in the mist, so long as he didn’t walk off a cliff. His pursuers, however, had had to grope carefully along his trail, using their sorcerous tracking a few steps at a time. They did not seem to have any unnatural means of penetrating the fog, either sorcerous or demonic.
And, of course, the enemy had stopped for meals every so often, or for water, while he had had no need of food or drink. That was the only bit of wizardry he still had going for him, the only spell remaining; if that were to wear off, he knew he would be doomed. His outfit’s wizard had known his job, though, and Valder had so far felt not the slightest twinge of hunger or thirst. He felt the charmed bloodstone in his belt pouch, making certain it was still secure.
Now, though, he had come to this stinking salt marsh and he wondered if his luck had run out. He settled himself on the grassy hummock and pulled his boots off, letting the foul water run out.
His luck had really run out two months ago, he decided, when the enemy had launched a surprise offensive out of nowhere and cut through to the sea, driving the Ethsharitic forces back down the coast, away from the forests and into the open plain. It had been phenomenally bad luck for Valder to have been out on solo patrol, checking the woods for signs of the enemy, when the assault came.
He had been looking for saboteurs and guerrillas, not the whole northern army.
Valder still did not understand how the enemy had cut through so quickly; all he knew was that, when he headed back toward camp, he had found northerners marching back and forth across the smoldering ruins of his home base, between himself and the Ethsharitic lines. He had encountered no scouts, no advance units, had had no warning. The fact that he had been sent out alone, in itself, indicated that his superiors hadn’t thought the enemy had any significant forces within a dozen leagues, at the very least.
With the enemy to the south, the sea to the west, and nothing to the east but forest wilderness clear to the borders of the Northern Empire itself, he had headed north. He had hoped to get well away from the enemy, then find or build himself a boat and work his way south along the coast until he reached the Ethsharitic lines — surely the enemy could not have driven very far to the south, certainly not as far as General Gor’s fortress. He knew nothing about boats, but he was reasonably sure that the enemy knew no more than he did. The Northern Empire was an inland nation; he doubted that there was any northern navy to worry about.
Unfortunately, the enemy had followed him northward along the shoreline, not because they knew he was there, but, as best he could guess, because they were afraid of Ethsharitic landings. He had kept moving north, staying ahead of the enemy scouts; four times he had settled in one spot long enough to start work on a raft, but each time a northern patrol had come along and driven him away long before he had a seaworthy craft.
Finally, four days ago, he had been careless, and a northerner who moved with the inhumanly smooth grace and speed of a shatra had spotted him. He had been running ever since, snatching naps when he could and using every ruse he could think of and every spell in his pouch. He pulled off his right sock and wrung it out, then draped it on the grass to dry; he knew that it would just get wet again when he moved on, as he would have to do quickly, but while he rested he wanted it dry. He was tugging at his left sock when he heard the rustle of grass. He froze.
The sound came again, from somewhere behind him, to the north — he had seated himself facing back the way he had come so as to have a better chance of spotting his pursuers.
It didn’t seem likely that even shatra could have circled around behind him already. Perhaps, he told himself, it was just a bird or an animal of some sort. Carefully, with his right foot bare and his left sock hanging halfway off, he rose, trying not to rustle, and peered through the waving stalks.
Something tall was moving about, something dark gray and pointed at the top. Not shatra, or at least not