Cashel didn't understand why this was happening, but he knew fights and right now that was the main thing. His hands shifted without him having to think about it.


            The first black man was in the midst of the locals, slashing with skill and amazing strength: an old fellow toppled in two parts, his hips and legs one way and his upper body the other. The victim's mouth was open to scream but the sword'd severed his diaphragm; there was nothing to force the air out of his lungs.


            Cashel couldn't be sure of a clean stroke in a melee and there wasn't time to chance something that might not work. With his left hand on the shaft and his right on the butt driving it, he rammed his staff toward the chest of the swordsman poised on the curb.


            The fellow got his round shield between the blow and his body. It was dull metal and no bigger across than the length of Cashel's hand and forearm.


            Sparks flew from the staff's iron cap. The shield gave a tinny bang like an ill-cast bell and slammed back into the swordsman's chest, crunching his breastbone and broad ribs.


            The man's mouth and nostrils spewed blood as he toppled into the pool. The sword'd wobbled pff to splash in the reeds. Cashel didn't have time to worry about the dead man or his gear, though, because he had his eyes on the surviving swordsman.


            At least four of the old men were down, carved apart. Only three were running away gabbling, but Cashel thought he'd seen Hareth duck behind the stone curb. The tangle of body parts where the black man stood could as easily have added to five as four corpses, not that it mattered now.


            The fellow shuffled toward Cashel in a wide stance. His sword was waist-high and close to his body, point a little above the hilt and ready to cut or stab. He held the buckler well out in front of him.


            Cashel'd hit the other shield hard enough to smash the ribs of the man holding it, but his quarterstaff hadn't made a dent in the round of dull metal. He should've dimpled even a solid ball of iron.


            Tenoctris continued to chant her spell like nothing was happening behind her. Maybe she didn't know that anything was happening; she was somebody who lost herself completely in what she was doing.


            Cashel wasn't like that himself. It was fine for a wizard to concentrate on just one thing, but a shepherd had to know what every one of his flock was doing at the same time. Otherwise the ones you ignored were toppling over cliffs, drowning in bogs, or killing themselves in other ways only a fool sheep could come up with.


            Cashel backed a step with his staff slanted crossways before him. His duty was to keep Tenoctris safe, but the best way to do that was to draw the swordsman away. If he put himself between the black man and the wizard, he'd get jointed like a chicken.


            The sword must be of the same metal as the other one's buckler. It'd left a bright notch in the curb after slicing through one of the codgers, but the edge was unmarked. The only way to fight a weapon like that was to have plenty of room to dodge.


            Fight with a quarterstaff, anyhow. If there'd been a pile of fist-sized rocks handy, Cashel figured he could throw them quick enough that one'd find a spot the fellow hadn't covered in time with his shield. When Cashel threw, a solid hit anywhere from scalp to ankle would put his target down sure as sure.


            But there weren't any rocks. And a sword that cut through a thigh bone, even an old man's thigh, would do the same for the quarterstaff.


            As Cashel continued his slow dance away, he kept the pool in the corner of his eye so he'd see if another swordsman was coming out of it. He didn't know what he'd do then–probably die, trapped between the pair of them because he wouldn't run off and leave Tenoctris–but nothing seemed to be happening there since he'd killed the second man.


            The water was dark with swirls of blood, spreading slowly. The corpse floated on its face; its legs and arms hung down, but the broad torso curved above the surface like the back of a whale. The black skin gleamed in the moonlight.


            Cashel prodded his staff toward the swordsman with his left hand leading. He meant it for a feint unless the black man stepped in to meet it with his shield. If that'd happened, Cashel would've put his back and shoulders into the stroke, figuring to hit hard enough to up-end the fellow before he had a chance to use his sword.


            Instead the swordsman crouched low and came on like a crab, the buckler forward but a little out to his left side while the blade in his right remained low and ready. Cashel eased away but the fellow moved quick, sword swinging as part of the lunge, he was good and his blade could cut stone and the only way this would go was–


            "Eulamo!" Tenoctris cried in a cracked squeal.


            A sparkling azure filament, thin as spider web, twined about the black man's ankles. He pitched forward soundlessly, driving his sword hilt-deep in the turf with the suddenness of his fall.


            The glitter bound the swordsman only for an instant before scattering into dust motes, but that was long enough. Cashel punched with his staff instead of swinging it: the leading ferrule drove the top of the bald skull down onto the fellow's back teeth. The arms and legs thrashed, but that was no more than a chicken kicking when you snap its neck. Whoever these black men were, they were too dangerous to take chances with.


            Cashel stepped back, breathing hard as he looked around for something else to fight. Nothing moved for a moment; then Hareth poked his head up from the other side of the pool and ducked down again.


            Cashel bent to the man he'd just killed, then remembered that the fellow wasn't wearing a tunic that'd serve as a rag. He took out his wool again and wiped blood and brains from the end of his staff. He hadn't expected Tenoctris to throw a loop of wizardlight around the swordsman's ankles, but this wasn't the first fight where being able to react the right way to an unexpected opportunity was the reason Cashel was standing at the end.