Rolf was thinking rapidly. Whether Ardneh was putting his present thoughts into his mind he did not know; certainly he had no feeling of being controlled. “You will not live long in her service. No one does. She will kill you, or crippleyou too badly to be of any-no, wait, I am not speaking to tormentyou. I said that I would use you better. And I will.”
She turned her face away, then back to him again. Herwhisper was long in coming, but when it came it had a desperate intensity. “There is no way that I can get away from her!”
He kept his own voice low and quick and calm. “And if there were?”
Again Catherine paused. Then: “If she has sent you to entrap me and torment me, I do not care. I must take the chance. I say I will go anywhere, do anything, to get away!”
Now he must think more swiftly still, but now it seemed no help from Ardneh was forthcoming. He could not settle on a detailed plan alone. Feet were moving somewhere above them on the stairs. “Come down again, later. If you can… ?”
“There will be more water to be fetched. Slops to be carried out.”
“Good. I will meet you, or a friend of mine. He’ll call you Catherine, so you know him. Go up now. Have hope.”
She gave one abrupt nod and turned her face away, and went on up the stair, despite her burden moving more quickly than she had when coming down.
In the room where he had left Loford waiting, Rolf saw to his surprise that Chup had returned already, and was standing against the wall where he could not be seen from door or window. Rolf had hardly begun to speak when Chup interrupted him with a gesture. “Yes, I know my beauteous bride is here,” he said leaning cautiously toward the window to glare at the building opposite. “I thought I saw her, earlier, up there. And then hardly had I gotten into the funhouse yonder when I saw an Eastern soldier that I used to know -his mind was on other things, to our good luck, and I can almost pledge he saw me not. He was talking to some friend about the Lady Charmian, enough to make it plain that she is here. Around my neck like some evil charm she seems to hang.”
“What did you do? Turn in the doorway and come back?”
“Not quite, for I was fairly in, and to just spin and run out again might look a little odd. Stood with my face in a corner, practically, for a while. You might say that I cut my revelry quite short.”
Rolf went to the window for a good look round, then turned back in. “It seems you were not recognized, or they’d be after us already. Now, I’ve some better news to tell.”
He quickly related to the others his conversation with Catherine. They resumed their planning, with at least one of them always watching to see if Catherine came down again.
The help of Charmian’s personal servant should be a great advantage if only they could hit upon the most effective way of using her. But whether or not the jewel was in Charmian’s possession or with some other member of the Constable’s party was still uncertain; the raiders had to make sure of its location before they could hatch any detailed plan.
When darkness fell it became difficult to see the stairway from the window of their room, and Rolf went out into the courtyard and strolled about, keeping watch. When Catherine came down again, she was carrying pots to be emptied. Rolf walked to intercept her at the refuse pits, which lay at an angle of windowless wall between tavern and stable. It was a dark and noisome place, and for the moment they had it to themselves.
Her face looked fearful, but her gaze did not fall away from his. She said: “If you were joking earlier, tell me now.”
“Catherine, I was not. I will take you with me from this place. But there is something else that I must take, and I need your help for that.”
“It is probably in your mistress’ jewel box, or in the Constable’s.”
Catherine did not seem in the least surprised. She had had a little time to think things over and form her own idea at what Rolf must want. “The Constable has no strong-box with him, to my knowledge, and I have seen him wear no jewels. I know where the woman’s jewel-case lies, but I have never seen it opened…”
The lid, massive and strong but elegantly lined within, was standing open at that moment, Charmian having performed the necessary ritual, reciting the three secret words and using the physical key required. She was choosing her jewelry for the evening, while one of her two servant girls, quivering a little as usual, stood by to help with other details.
Considering the hard times that had recently overtaken her, there was a fair amount of wealth and beauty arrayed in the form of bright gems amid the soft compartments of the little chest. In the bottom, looking at odds with everything else, lay a spherical lump of dark stuff the size of a man’s two fists. It was mounted in a filigree of silver and gold, no part of which pierced the ebon sphere that it enclosed. As usual, when she looked at it, Charmian frowned; the commander of the cavalry outpost had given it to her, as the best he had to give. No doubt most people would think most of the smaller diamonds more valuable, but Charmian was not so sure; it was quite beautiful in its own different way. But its size! A giantess three meters tall might have worn it as a fine ornament, but what was a woman of ordinary stature to do with such a massive jewel?
She had considered other possibilities, of course. Sensitive to most of the auras of magic, she could feel nothing of power or danger from the thing, no life-potential much above that of any other lump of stone of equal size.
There was a faint sound at her door, the creak of a board under a quiet but heavy tread. The breathing of the maid became suspended, but Charmian did not turn. Let him surprise her thus. Let Abner see how many spaces remained to be filled with wealth inside this one modest treasure-box of hers. While she kept on looking into the box, readying herself to be surprised, she wondered still what the black thing was. When someday she had joined the court of Ominor, when first class wizards were at her service, she would have to have it properly assayed…
Abner’s great hand came delicately stroking her bare shoulder and she gave a little cry, and start, seemingly as spontaneous as the last time he had “surprised” her. She was looking round, her eyes innocently and prettily wide, when his face altered, and his hand on her flesh turned to stone. Her surprise turned real.
He was staring into the open jewel box, and his voice was no longer the voice of an infatuated man, but that of an Eastern Lord. “Where did you get that?”
Having seen Catherine back to the foot of the stair, Rolf returned to the room where Chup and Loford waited. There he passed on to them the information that the girl had given. Now in the dust of the floor they could sketch the layout of the rooms in both Charmian’s and the Constable’s apartments, and the usual position of the jewel-box in the former. There were other matters to be thought about as well, what soldiers and servants were likely to be where, and how doors were fastened and windows barred. There were a few more questions to be asked of Catherine next time Rolf met with her.
“And one more thing,” Chup added. “Do you really mean to bring the girl away with us?”
“We will bring her back to the patrol,” said Rolf after a moment. “After that it will be up to Mewick.”
Chup nodded slowly. “But if we do not get her clean away, we cannot leave her able to answer questions.”
Loford was standing by gloomily, with nothing to say for the moment. Rolf hesitated, but only briefly. “Agreed,” he murmured with a nod.
After a moment Chup went on: “Speaking of ladies likely to be thought superfluous, there is the matter of my bride.” He fell silent for a little while, staring moodily out the window. Somehow it did not seem to him prohibitively strange to still call Charmian his bride. “I find I do not care if we leave her alive or dead.”
The others made no response to that. He felt he could not leave it at that. “Well, I know this is war and not a personal matter… I just mean that I will kill her if it seems the best move to make, though I feel no urge to do so.”
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