The Golden Steed
Book 13 of the Richard Blade Series
????? The ringing of the telephone broke Richard Blade's sleep. As always, he was awake in aninstant. In his profession those who were slow to awake didn't last long. He reached one longtanned arm out of bed and picked up the receiver.
"Hello, Crawford here." That was his cover name when traveling abroad on personal business. Hewas no longer an active field agent for the secret intelligence agency MI6. But here certainlymust be people who remembered that a "Richard Blade" had been one of MI6's top agents fornearly twenty years. In those years he had done a good deal to give many people scores andgrudges against him. If his name showed up nakedly on a Riviera hotel register, some of thosepeople might be tempted to try settling those scores. And Blade preferred to take his holidayswithout interruptions or excitement. He got more than enough excitement on his new job.
"Ah, Francis," came the familiar paternal voice on the other end of the line. Fuzzed anddistorted as it was by the long-distance line from London, J's voice was unmistakable. The oldspymaster had been Blade's chief in MI6, and was in an odd sort of way still his chief. "Howare you? Riviera agreeing with you?"
"Very much, sir."
"Have anything doing that you can't break off?"
"Nothing in particular, sir." That was approximately true. There had been an American girl, onher way to Oxford. But she couldn't be called particular. Decidedly not. There was animpressive number of hours in that young lady's bedroom log, Blade was sure. "Has businesssuddenly picked up?"
"Not worth mentioning. But his lordship wants to call a conference on the twelfth to discussone of the new lines. Number Nineteen, I think he said."
"Very good, sir. I'll be there in plenty of time."
The line went dead. Blade put the receiver back in place and lay back in the bed. Like hisidentity, his profession was concealed while he was abroad behind a cover story and a code. Butthere were reasons for concealing his profession that went beyond his personal safety.
There was no single word to describe Blade's profession, a profession unknown to the public-orso he and J both devoutly hoped. And Blade doubted if there ever would be a word. How can youdescribe a man whose job it is to travel into alternate dimensions-not quite on alternateThursdays, but much the same way a deep-sea sailor goes on a long voyage? Blade didn't know.All he knew was that he was the best man in the world today for that job. And he enjoyed it. Hehad an adventurous temperament, but he had managed to be born in a century when there were fewprofessions that offered that much chance for adventurers. He knew that he was very lucky.
His luck had begun the day that England's most brilliant and eccentric scientist, LordLeighton, had decided to make an experiment. The experiment consisted of linking a man's braindirectly into an advanced computer-or at least what had been an advanced computer then.Compared to what Lord Leighton used now, that first computer was hardly more than a child'stoy. Leighton's goal was to radically increase the powers of both the human and the electronicintelligences, each taking strength from the other.
A good idea. Blade rather hoped that one day the original experiment could be carried outsuccessfully. But things had not turned out as the scientist planned. Blade had awakened in astrange, barbaric world in which savage tribes and the votaries of even more savage religions
roamed about and warred on one another. Thanks to his training, his muscles, his quickreflexes, and his quicker wits, he had survived and somehow been snatched back to LordLeighton's laboratory.
Immediately Lord Leighton's original project went aglimmering for here was something ten timesas important. The existence of alternate dimensions-Dimension X-had frequently been theorized.Now it had been proved. And now it seemed possible to travel at will into those dimensions,explore them, discover their resources of knowledge and raw materials, bring wealth back toEngland. It was a discovery of enormous national importance.
So Project Dimension X was born. Lord Leighton's fertile brain created successively moresophisticated computers. The prime minister's authority and political skills produced money andturned aside awkward questions-at least so far. J traveled about on a hundred odd items ofneeded business. And Blade himself went into Dimension X-twelve times now-explored, wanderedabout, and helped the people he found there. All twelve times he had arrived in Dimension Xnaked as the day he was born, and all twelve times he had survived and even flourished by histrained mind and athlete's body.
But perhaps this time would be different. "Number Nineteen" was the code for one of theinnumerable subprojects the whole Dimension X business had spawned. Blade had become wearierand wearier of having to contrive even the most basic clothes and weapons when he arrived in anew dimension. After his return from his last trip, he had taken the matter up with LordLeighton. He had pointed out, among other things, that he was relying too much on luck to keepsending him into these violent worlds stark naked. It was time to start seeing about sending asurvival kit through the computer with him. J, who loved Blade like a son, had supported him.
Lord Leighton was used to having his weakness for subprojects criticized. He ignored thesecriticisms, of course, and plowed ahead. But now both Blade and J were actually urging him togo off on a new tangent. It was commonly believed that the scientist had a smaller version ofone of his own computers in place of a heart, but Blade knew this wasn't quite correct. Still,Leighton must have been gratified, because he had gone straight to work on developing thesurvival kit. And he must have worked like a beaver, if the survival kit was ready so quickly.It had been barely a month since Blade returned from his last Dimension X trip to the warriorpeople of Zunga.
After breakfast the next morning, Blade checked out of the hotel and drove his rented Renaultback into Cannes. There was a flight leaving for Paris at 10:15, and with a good deal ofscurrying he just caught it. From Paris, another flight took him on to London. The airport bustrundled him into the city through a dreary late autumn afternoon, gray skies hanging low andthreatening rain, fog, or a combination of the two. It was a relief to finally reach his ownapartment, unpack his bags, and improvise a dinner.
Then there was a note for his charlady. She would probably wonder why he was dashing off againjust after getting back from southern France. But she would wonder privately and quietly. Shewas not bound by the Official Secrets Act, of course, but MI6 had done a quick and quiet checkon her before they let him hire her. The report had come back: the perfectly respectable widowof a sergeant in the Coldstream Guards, anything but a gossip.
There were times when Blade could work up a mood of blazing resentment against all the secrecythat surrounded his life. The Official Secrets Act had smashed his engagement, would probablykeep him a bachelor until he retired, and had elbowed its way into his life in all sorts oflittle ways.
Eventually he went to bed because he couldn't think of anything better to do. When there wasanother trip into Dimension X coming up, he found it hard to concentrate on anything else. HomeDimension, his apartment with its books and bottles, even the women who shared his bed for anight or a week, all came to seem insubstantial and fleeting.
The heart of Project Dimension X was Lord Leighton's underground complex, two hundred feetbelow the Tower of London. It included offices, laboratories, a small but well-equippedhospital where Blade was examined and interviewed after each return, and the gigantic computer
itself. Guarded on the surface by a squad of Special Branch men and down below by the latestelectronic gear, the complex represented an investment approaching ten million pounds.
Ten million pounds, almost every penny of it out of the British taxpayer's pocket, as the primeminister kept reminding Lord Leighton. And as the P.M. commented even more frequently, what hadthat investment produced? Blade brought something back from every trip, of course. From Zungahe had returned with a ruby the size of a man's fist on a gold chain around his neck. From theland of the Ice Dragons he had returned with the knowledge that somewhere else in the universethere was a non-human intelligent race. But all the wealth, all the knowledge, was in littlebits and pieces. There was nothing that the P.M. could show to an inquisitive Parliament tojustify those millions of pounds-not yet. As the taxi carried him toward the Tower, Blade wassaying to himself, "Perhaps this is the moment of the breakthrough." He had said it to himselfthe last half-dozen times, and he had been disappointed the last half-dozen times. But sooneror later luck would run his way-and the Project's, and England's.
Unless it ran out for him? That was possible. He was the only man in the Free World who hadgone into Dimension X and returned alive and sane. And there were more times than he cared toremember when he had come closer than he liked to think to not coming back. The prime ministerand J had both been sweating blood for the better part of two years on a project to find othermen capable of going where Blade had gone. So far all they had was a mass of statistics and nota single man who could make the trip with any real prospect of coming back alive and sane. Ifthey had turned up anyone else, Blade knew he would not be in the taxi on his way to the Towerand the thirteenth trip into Dimension X. Thirteenth? He couldn't help wondering if there wouldbe any notable change in his luck this time.
The morning rush had faded away, and the taxi driver slipped quickly and neatly throughLondon's traffic to the Tower. The handful of sightseers who had braved the weather paid noattention to Blade as he climbed out of the taxi and paid his fare. Nor did they pay anyattention to the Special Branch men who stepped quietly up to Blade and took him in tow. TheSpecial Branch men were trained to look inconspicuous. This time Blade found theirexpressionless faces, voices, and even suits getting on his nerves. He realized that he must betenser than usual, if something so familiar could suddenly start bothering him.
The edginess vanished when the elevator door closed behind him and the elevator car began itstwo-hundred-foot plunge to the level of the complex. And it turned to cheerful calm when thatdoor opened and he saw J standing in the corridor to greet him. The man's lined civil servant'sface creased all over in the wide welcoming smile it always showed when Blade appeared. Who wasthat ancient Greek who went around in a barrel looking for ten honest men? Blade rememberedvery little of his classics. Diogenes-yes, that was the one. Well, if Diogenes showed up inEngland today, he could find at least one honest man in J. A bit surprising, perhaps,considering J's forty years as a spy and a spymaster. Those weren't the world's most honestprofessions. But it was always the man himself who counted.
And what about Lord Leighton? came an impish question from the back of Blade's mind. What wouldbe the best word to describe the old scientist? Looking for the answer to that question keptBlade's mind busy all the way down the corridor from the elevator to Lord Leighton's office. Hestill hadn't found an answer when he and J entered the office.
Lord Leighton rose from behind his paper-heaped desk as they entered. His briskness gave noclue to his hunchback, to his polio-twisted legs that yet managed to get him around withsurprising speed, nor to his eighty-odd years. His dark eyes threw a sharp, searching look atBlade. Blade felt, not for the first time, that Lord Leighton could probe a man's mind and bodywith one of those glances. He knew it was a ridiculous idea, but he could never quite get ridof it. He respected Lord Leighton-in fact, he was in awe of some of the man's achievements. Butthere was no denying the gnome like little scientist intimidated him as much as some of themonsters and human enemies he had encountered in Dimension X.
"Good morning, Richard," said Leighton briskly. "I suppose J's given you the word on NumberNineteen?"
"Well, then." Leighton jabbed a button set in his desk. "Pendleton, bring in the survival kit."He turned back to Blade. "J's probably been telling you how he stormed and threatened andthundered at me to give Nineteen a Red One Priority. Nonsense. It's a damned good idea. Afterall, you're the only one we've got to send off into Dimension X. The only arrow in our quiver,you might say. Nobody else shows any signs of measuring up, at least not yet. So what else isthere to do, but try equipping you a little better?" Blade and J exchanged half-amused glances.Lord Leighton had his little vanities, and one of them was his image as a hard, tough,unemotional pure scientist-which both Blade and J knew was nonsense.
At this point there was a knock on the door. "Come in," shouted Leighton. The door opened andtwo of the laboratory technicians came in, lugging between them a large wooden crate. Bladenoted the size of the box somewhat skeptically.
"What did you make for me? A suit of armor?"
Leighton grinned. "Not at all, my boy. Just a few basic necessities."
Lord Leighton's idea of "a few basic necessities" turned out to resemble the equipment of aHimalayan climber. Boots, an insulated suit, three all-purpose knives, a sleeping bag, ahundred feet of light rope, a week's emergency rations, a canteen-the list went on and on.Looking at the growing pile on the floor, Blade was struck by two things. One was LordLeighton's generous notions of what one man could carry. The other was that everything exceptthe knives was made of natural materials.
The scientist frowned. "Do you think there's too much here?"
"For a hiking trip in rough country, no. I've handled a sixty-pound pack in the Alps with notrouble at all. But I wasn't trying to move fast there. And I certainly wasn't planning ondoing any fighting."
J nodded. "Richard's right. You'll have the poor chap loaded down like a World War Iinfantryman." J, Blade recalled, had been just that, so the old man should know what he wastalking about.
"Very well," said Leighton with a smile that seemed almost sheepish. "We didn't have time toget a security clearance for a survival expert. So I read up on backpacking and made up the kitmyself. I was largely -ah-guessing." For Lord Leighton to admit to "guessing" was equivalent tomost men's admitting they had robbed the Bank of England. Again J and Blade exchanged grins.
"As for the natural materials," Leighton went on, "that's a little less a matter of guesswork.We looked for some common factor in all the items you've managed to bring back from DimensionX, and found it. All of them are very stable chemically, even under the extreme conditions ofan inter-dimensional transfer. Natural materials tend to have that same quality, while some ofthe more common synthetics don't. That's why everything is natural except the knives, and wecouldn't very well send you off with wooden knives, could we?"
Blade grinned and shook his head, then got down on his knees and began selecting items out ofthe pile on the floor. Eventually he picked out the clothing, the emergency rations andcanteen, the knives-definitely the knives-the rope, and a light haversack to carry them all.Everything Lord Leighton had put in on the White Knight's principle of guarding against thebites of sharks was discarded. By the time he had finished, the load was down to less thanthirty pounds, and Lord Leighton was beginning to fidget.
"Are you ready, Richard?"
"Any time you are, sir."
"Good." Leighton pressed the desk button again. "Initiate main sequence and prepare thetransfer chamber." Then he rose and led the way out into the corridor.
Nothing had changed in the main computer room. The computer consoles still loomed giganticabove the men passing among them. They seemed to crowd out against the walls and up against theroof of the underground chamber. Their sullen gray crackled finish was still as immaculate as
ever. Leighton was an unashamed fanatic about cleanliness.
Finally they reached the innermost chamber. Here the rubber-padded chair stood in its glassbooth. It was waiting for Blade to sit down in it and be hurled, hopefully equipment and all,into Dimension X.
This time, however, there was a change in the long-established routine of preparing Blade forhis trip. He still went into the changing room, still stripped naked, still smeared himself allover with a black foul-smelling grease to prevent electrical burns. He still pulled on aloincloth. But when he stepped out of the changing room, Leighton was waiting for him with acomplex harness of leather straps. It was somewhat like the webbing harness blade had usedduring his military service, and he had no trouble getting it on. When he had done so, Leightonattached the haversack to the chest strap and hooked the boots on the belt. Then he steppedback and surveyed his work.
"You see," the scientist said to J, "we can't risk any irregularities in the electrical fieldthat surrounds Richard as he transfers. So we have to make sure that he stays in the center ofthe field, and that his gear doesn't interfere with placing the electrodes. Otherwise we mightwind up putting only part of him part way into Dimension X. I think that would be ratherawkward." J grimaced at the idea. That was one of the long-standing nightmares, shared byeverybody who knew what the project was really about. There too luck had been running in theirfavor-so far. "Or we might not get his equipment through. And what's the good of that?"
Blade sat down in the chair. The weight of the sack on his chest was unfamiliar, and he felt itdragging him forward. But he managed to lean back and relax as Leighton went into the next partof the routine-attaching the cobra-headed electrodes all over Blade's body. The sack made nodifference there. Leighton deftly inserted half a dozen electrodes in under it, and two inunder each of the boots.
The process of attaching the electrodes seemed to take longer this time. Was Leighton trying tocompensate for the extra matter to be sent through the computer by increasing the density ofthe electrodes? It was an interesting technical point, but not one that particularly interestedBlade now. As the actual moment of the transfer approached, his mind as usual was entirelyfocused on that transfer and what might be waiting for him in Dimension X.
That unknown would never lose its power to excite him. Dimension X was the ultimate gift to aman of Blade's adventuresome disposition. It was never the same on two successive trips. Therewas a sub-project working to remedy that, and Blade had to admit it was a useful one. How couldone properly explore or exploit Dimension X on a hit-or-miss basis? But there were times whenhe selfishly hoped that the sub-project would never succeed. The idea of a regular commuter runbetween Home Dimension and Dimension X didn't appeal to him.
While these thoughts were running through Blade's mind, Lord Leighton was scuttling about,making the final checks. At last he stationed himself at the main console, hand poised over thered master switch. He turned to Blade. He did not ask the question out loud this time, but itwas plain on his wrinkled face.
Blade nodded. "Ready and waiting, sir."
Leighton's gnarled hand seemed to drift down to the switch, then snap it down in a single sharpmotion. As the switch came down, so did total darkness. Silent, chilling, stifling, it blottedout the computer room, Lord Leighton, and J in a single instant.
In the next instant the darkness lifted, and Blade was alone in the center of an enormoussilver sphere. A translucent silver though-outside he could see flowing and swooping green andblue shapes. Only shapes-nothing he could recognize. Vaguely he felt that he did not want toget a closer look at them.
Then they faded slowly, as the sphere around him gradually became opaque. Not only was itbecoming opaque but it was contracting in on him. And it was beginning to spin. The faster itspun, the faster it contracted. The curving surface rushed in on him from all sides, reachedhim, folded itself around the contours of his body, writhing and jerking as it did so. Its
touch was sterile, cold, and dry. It began to tighten, and kept on tightening until Blade felthis vision dimming and his breath coming with difficulty. His vision faded still further, andthe silver began to turn dark. Blue, gray, black. It was gone, everything around him was gone.Then a sudden chill, and air rushing past him. A smashing blow that seemed to split his headapart. Then a sudden plunge into a new blackness.
As consciousness slowly returned, Blade realized that he felt considerably worse than usual.His head felt as if somebody had tried to split it open with an axe, and he felt bruised andscraped and gouged all over. He opened his eyes, but closed them again as sunlight stabbed intohis eyes, making him wince and his head throb even more. Finally the pain in his head fadedaway enough so that he tried opening his eyes again.
Two things struck him immediately. First, that battered feeling was nothing imaginary. His bodywas covered with welts and scrapes and a thick layer of dirt and dust. Blood had clotted blackin several open cuts-fortunately small ones. Second, he was as naked as he had ever been. Noteven the loincloth had made the trip. Somewhere between Home Dimension and where he was now, heand his survival kit had parted company.
"Damn it," he said wearily, and lurched to his feet. His head spun and whirled, and he nearlyfell flat on his face. Hastily he sat down again, and from a sitting position surveyed hissurroundings.
He was on the edge of a dense patch of stout wiry bushes with pale green leaves and smoothblack bark. Directly behind him a near-vertical cliff shot up thirty feet, with more of thebushes crowning it. He must have landed on top of the cliff, gone over the edge, and droppedthe whole thirty feet into the second patch of bushes below. That was a much narrower escapethan he liked to think about. If it hadn't been for the bushes at the bottom-well, a thirty-foot drop onto hard ground laced with rocks could easily have broken his skull or his back. Orit could have merely disabled him, and left him to die slowly of thirst and starvation. As itwas, he felt as if he had been worked over by half a dozen men armed with clubs. He stood upand experimentally flexed his limbs. Everything seemed to be in working order. But the effortsent fresh pains shooting through his head. He sat down again and continued his survey.
Ahead of him, the ground dropped away in a rocky forty-five degree slope. At the end of thatslope, more than a mile away and nearly half that far below him, a valley floor spread out.Part of it was bare rock and gravel, with a dry river-bed slashing through it. The rest wascovered with patches of scrubby bushes and stunted trees. Above the valley floor, steep slopesof jagged blue-gray rock sloped upward to even more jagged ridge lines. Beyond those ridgelines, even higher peaks rose dark against the blue sky except where their tops shone with snowcaps. In the blazing sunlight and the clear air, Blade could follow the course of the valleyfor several miles as it wound away into the distance.
One of his missions as an agent had taken Blade to Iran, so he recognized the type of terrain.He was well up in the foothills of a mountain range, and except for flash floods from meltingsnow in the spring, rugged, hot by day and cold by night. An ugly, lonely place for a naked manto survive by himself. And a place where a broken leg would have been a death sentence.
Blade put the gloomy might-have-beens behind him and stood up. Down in the valley, the treeswould at least provide some shelter from the winds that could easily scour these high, exposedslopes. His eyes roamed over the slope, picking out the easiest route. Then he bent down andsnapped a branch from one of the bushes behind him. It would be useless as a weapon. But itmight serve to probe the slope ahead of him for loose rocks. The pain in his head had subsidedto a dull ache. He picked the first few yards of his path, and started down.
Thousands of centuries of dry baking heat and freezing cold had done their work on the rock,splitting and cracking it insanely and making it treacherous footing. More than once Blade'sprobing staff sent apparently secure rocks the size of his head leaping out of place and downthe slope. And once an entire slab of rock, ten feet on a side, moved under his foot as his
weight came down on it. He had just time to jerk himself backward and cling to the firmer rockabove. The slab went grinding and crashing down in a cloud of dust, dislodging more and morerocks as it went, until a small avalanche finally crashed down onto the valley floor.
Being even more careful now, Blade continued downward. He guessed it took him another half hourto reach the valley floor. But after that it was only a few minutes' brisk jogging to reach thefirst clump of trees. He pulled a branch loose and used some of the leaves to wipe the cakeddust and grit from his body, while he chewed on other leaves to get some moisture from them.That might help keep him alive for an extra day or two, but he knew he had to find water soon.He decided to wait until evening, and then move down the valley by night in search of water. Inthe meantime, there was nothing to do but sleep.
Blade had a mental alarm clock that he could set more or less at will. When it woke him, theblazing sun was well down in the sky. The few wisps of cloud in the west were turning into longstreamers of red and gold flame as the sun sank through them. Under the trees the shadows weredeeper and longer, and there was a chill creeping into the air. It was time to move on. Bladereached up and broke off a heavier branch to give himself a better staff. With this swinging inhis right hand, he headed for the riverbed. It offered the easiest walking, and there might bewater lurking in the soil below it.
Blade was halfway to the river when screams sounded through the twilight. First a snarlingyowl, with something feline in it. Then an unmistakably human scream of surprise, terror, andagony. And finally the shrill, panic-stricken neighing of a horse, followed by a flurry ofhooves. The hoofbeats were approaching rapidly. Blade flattened himself behind a tree andstared off in the direction of the noises. He thought he heard a low rumbling snarl offsomewhere in the trees.
Then the hoofbeats rose to a climax, bushes smashed, and a horse burst out of the trees intothe open. Blade stared at it. There was nothing unusual about its size and shape. It lookedmore like an Arabian than anything else. But the color made Blade stare and keep staring. Thehorse was a pale golden color, not the gold of a palomino but a lighter shade, with a mane andtail that shone like burnished silver. It was breathtakingly beautiful as it burst out into thesunset glow. It wore a bridle and saddle with saddlebags slung on either side. The danglingstirrups and the metal fittings of the bridle were silver, and the saddle was rich maroonleather. Blood smeared across the saddle suggested the fate of the rider.
This was all Blade could see of the horse as it raced past him. It was moving so fast that itsmomentum carried it over the edge of the riverbed before it could get set to jump. Blade heardit neigh again in panic as it lost its balance and tumbled down the side in a scrabbling ofhooves. As he heard it hit the bottom, he also heard something else-the soft padding ofapproaching feet. Then two eyes glowed in the shadows under the trees. Slowly, slowly, like acat stalking a bird, a huge leopard slipped out into the open.
Blade knew that he had no weapon to give him any chance against the big cat. It was a monsterthat must have weighed nearly as much as Blade did, and it had speed and agility and tearingclaws and teeth. But he was damned if he was going to let it stalk and kill the golden horse.With the horse under him, Blade's chances of survival would increase ten times.
The leopard was moving away from Blade now, slipping along the edge of the riverbed, growlingas it went. Blade wet his finger and held it up to test the wind. He was downwind of theleopard. If he moved fast and quietly . . .
Crouching low, he slipped out from behind the trees, heading toward the edge of the riverbedand the spot where he had last seen the horse. Once he flattened himself on the ground andfroze as the leopard stopped to look about. But it was too intent on stalking the horse tospare much attention for anything else. Crawling inch by inch on his belly, Blade reached theedge and looked over.
Fifty feet farther along, the horse was backed against the far side of the riverbed. It wastrembling and there was foam dripping from its mouth, but it no longer seemed panic-stricken.It looked as though it were waiting, alert and ready to fight the leopard. This was a horse
with the kind of spirit Blade liked. But more interesting than the horse were the weapons hesaw slung from the saddle-a yard-long recurve bow and a six-foot lance. But he could see noquiver of arrows. Blade shook his head. He would much rather take the bow if he could and putan arrow into the leopard. But it looked as if he was going to have to try snatching the lance,then wait for the leopard to close in.
As cautiously as the leopard itself, Blade began stalking the horse, crawling along the slopeof the riverbed just below the edge. It took him five minutes to cover half the distance. Hewas beginning to wonder if the leopard had given up and gone off to seek easier prey. Then heheard the same unmistakable rumbling growl from farther down the bank, and saw the horseflinch.
He kept moving, even more cautiously than before. If the horse fled now, he would be left alonewith the leopard, with no weapon and no prospect of getting any. He kept on, until the horseseemed almost close enough to touch. But he could see the leopard crouching on the bank above,just as close. This was going to be delicate. Now he could not afford to startle either of theanimals.
Suddenly the leopard gave a louder growl than before. The horse reared, lashing out with itsfront hooves as if it saw the leopard there in front of it. As it came down on all fours, Bladesaw its hind legs dig in. It was getting set to bolt. He had to make his move now.
He sprang to his feet and hurled himself down the bank, nearly losing his footing and sprawlingon the hard-packed gravel at the bottom. He kept his legs under him with tremendous effort,reached the horse as it reared up again, and snatched the lance from its leather case.
As the lance came free, a growl came from behind him, turning into a scream. The horse boltedwith a neigh and a spray of gravel. The leopard soared into the air as steel-spring muscleshurled it out from the bank, arching high as though it were trying to fly. In midair it seemedto catch sight of Blade, took its attention off the horse for a split-second, and landed on thegravel instead of on the horse's back. For a few seconds it seemed confused and crouchedmotionless instead of lunging in pursuit of the horse. In those seconds Blade lunged forwardhimself, the lance stabbing downward. The needle-pointed steel head drove into the leopard'sback, just behind the shoulder blades.
It reared up with a scream of rage and pain, forepaws flailing the air. It was so strong thatfor a moment Blade thought it was going to pull itself free of the lance and turn on him. Ittwisted and jerked from side to side, until Blade began to wonder if the lance shaft were goingto snap. Then it reared up one final time, gave a scream that ended in a gurgle, and collapsedon the ground.
Blade pulled the lance out and hastily stepped back, waiting for any more signs of life. Theleopard lay motionless. Blade picked up a stone and threw it at the leopard's head. It stilldid not move. With a sigh of relief he turned to look for the horse. He did not expect to findit anywhere in sight. A horse like that could be a mile away in the time it had taken him tokill the leopard.
But surprisingly the golden horse was standing barely a hundred yards away, head up, staringback at Blade and the dead leopard. As Blade watched it, the horse neighed again and begantrotting toward him, head still raised. Somehow the horse seemed to know that the leopard wasdead and that this tall man standing over the leopard's body was a friend.
The horse came straight up to Blade and nuzzled at him, warm wet breath blowing in his face.Blade ran his fingers through the shimmering silver mane and down across the well-muscledarched neck.
"Think you need some company, don't you? Well, so do I." He went on in this vein for some time,keeping his voice low and soothing and paying more attention to his tone than to his words.Gradually the trembling faded away, and the horse thrust its head at Blade until he could graspthe bridle. The horse tugged at the bridle for a moment, then let Blade lead it over to thebank and up to level ground.
The horse was carrying a quiver on the side that had been turned away from him. But there wereno arrows left in it. However, Blade had the lance, and in the saddlebags there were flint andsteel, a good stout hunting knife, two large skin bags of water, and several packets of hardbread and dried meat. His own survival kit might not have survived the trip into Dimension X,but luck seemed to have provided him with an almost equally good one, and a horse as well.
But there was that human scream he had heard. The horse's master might be-must be-back there inthe trees. Blade knew he would have to look for the man and try to help him before he didanything else. He swung himself into the saddle, feeling the horse flinch at first but thenbecome calm. Then he dug in his heels and urged it up to a walk. Even in the fast-fading light,the horse's hoofprints left a clear trail on the ground. Blade did not have to follow the trailvery far. Less than a hundred yards back into the shadowy woods, he saw a dark object sprawledon the ground.
Blade dismounted, tethered the horse to a bush, and knelt to examine the body. The man wasdead, his throat savaged by the leopard and his head twisted at an unnatural angle by his fallto the ground. Above the bloody, gapping wound, his face was dark, with a wiry black beard andbristling black mustache. A conical helmet with a mail hood attached had fallen off, revealingclose-cropped black hair.
The man's clothes gave few clues as to his rank or profession, but suggested that he was from apeople more accustomed to walking than riding. His trousers were tight and his boots obviouslydesigned for rough country, with spiked soles and low heels. A broad leather belt with a silverbuckle supported a heavy silk purse and a sword in a jeweled scabbard. Blade drew the sword andexamined it. It was not a horseman's sword, not with that heavy straight blade. For a weakerman, it might even be a two-handed sword. The hilt ended in a gold eagle's head with jeweledeyes and an enameled crest. It was not a ceremonial sword, either. The nicks in the edge andthe scars on the blade told of much use. The purse contained a handful of gold coins-and asmall fortune in jewels, mostly sapphires.
There was a mystery piling up here. Blade didn't understand all of it, and those parts heunderstood he didn't particularly like. That the man had been knocked off his horse and killedby the leopard was obvious. But before that? Why should a man, apparently of high rank, beriding alone up this desolate valley, far from any signs of civilization? Why the empty quiver,and why the freshly battered sword? Those were the parts Blade particularly disliked. Itsuggested a recent fight, and then a flight from those the man had fought. The same peoplemight still be around, possibly on the trail of the dead man. They might be many miles off,they might be only a few hundred yards away, invisible in the trees and the darkness.
Blade did not know which guess was correct, or even which one was likely. But he knew that hewas not going to go blundering about in the darkness. There might not be much he could do todefend himself if the unknown enemies came upon him out of the darkness. But he could at leastavoid wandering into any ambushes.
He quietly untied the horse and led it into a thicker patch of trees, then tethered it again toa low branch. Then he dragged the rider's body into the same patch, and stripped it of itscloak. He wrapped the cloak around himself and backed out of the grove, brushing away thetracks as best he could with a broken branch. He moved fifty yards up the valley before hefound another small grove dense enough to hide him. Crawling under the bushes, belay down andwrapped himself up in the cloak.
He had done what he could. The horse was tethered where any enemies coming up the valley wouldhave to pass it. If it scented them, he could rely on it to give the alarm. And then he couldtrust to his sword, the knife, and his own fighting skill to give him a chance.
As for the rest, he wished he had more water and something warmer than the dead man's cloak tokeep out the increasing chill of the night. But he and the horse would just have to be sparingwith water. And he had slept adequately, if not comfortably, in worse weather with lessclothing than he had now. He would just have to manage, as was usual in Dimension X. With anodd feeling that he had come home to his proper place, Blade drifted off to sleep.