The Constable’s overbearing voice called out some threat, and the battering at the door resumed, more violently than before. The renewed noise from the door, with that induced by magic overhead, effectively covered the ripping up of another board.
The whole was big enough now for Rolf, and he was through it in a moment, with Catherine right behind him. Loford had to tear up yet another plank before the gap was wide enough to accommodate his bulk; luckily the ceilings were low and he had not far to fall. Chup was right behind.
Catherine picked up a bow, and looped over her shoulder a quiver of arrows that had been left in a corner of the room. With her cloak she might manage to conceal the weapons, and she pulled up its hood now to hide her face. Rolf was at the door, peering out through a crack until one set of hurried footsteps had passed their landing going up, and another down; and then he led the way out onto the stair, flattening himself against a wall. The Constable’s men were gathered on the stair and landing above, still assaulting the heavy door of the top-floor apartment.
Rolf, Catherine, Loford, Chup. In single file on the stair, the four of them glided swiftly down. At the bottom of the stair, weapons under cloaks, they passed out swiftly through the doorway into the courtyard where torches flared, disturbed animals stamped and moved and grunted, and travelers, slaves, grooms, tavern girls, all milled around, gaping upward with mixed alarm and interest.
The four moved in a regular walking pace across the courtyard to the stair on the other side; over there was the only way out. They were about halfway across, moving deliberately amid people and restless animals, when behind them Charmian’s screams for help were suddenly added to the noise. She must have at last dared to peer out of the wardrobe, to find herself practically alone amid unnerving sounds. When the screams came Rolf took Catherine’s arm in a hard grip, but he need not have bothered, for her step remained steady. Without interference from anyone in the ragged little crowd of gapers, the four reached the desired doorway and began to mount the stair. This building was less solidly built than the one they had just come from, though of the same general plan.
Doors stood open to their right and left as they ascended, one floor, two, but for the moment no one was in sight. The rooms had evidently been emptied of soldiers and onlookers alike by the alarms.
Now Chup took the lead, and pulled back the hood of his cloak. As they rounded the last landing going up, the expected sentry appeared at the top of the stair, the door to the room behind him standing open.
Chup in his best Eastern-officer voice demanded: “Here, fellow, are any men loitering in those rooms?” and kept on climbing as he spoke.
“No, sir! No malingerers here.”
“Then who is that?” Chup barked. He pointed behind the sentry into a dark corner of an empty room as he came up to the man, bringing a sure blade from beneath his cloak as the man’s head turned.
Now, the four could go unhurriedly up a ladder from the topmost stair-landing to a trapdoor that opened on the roof. Rolf, once more in the lead, flattened himself down as he crawled out into the open night. On the roof across the court the Eastern men waiting in fruitless ambush were being less cautious, and he could see them easily in silhouette. All was quiet in that direction now, a state of affairs that could not last much longer; the Constable would be finding his trap empty, and would be howling on their trail when he saw the great hole they had made in the floor.
Chup had the soft thin coil of rope unwound from his midsection, and nowlay on his back with his feet against the low parapet, making himself a human anchor to hold the rope while the others slid down. Rolf went first. The rope was long enough to reach the ground with a little to spare. As soon as sand was under his feet, he tugged once on the rope and waited with drawn sword. Catherine came next, dropping her bow when halfway down but picking it up before she scrambled to Rolf’s side; and then Loford, grunting and mumbling as the rope burned his sliding fingers. Then came the rope itself, a whispering coil; then Chup, dropping unaided from rooftop to sand.
In single file the four of them marched in silence, save for the soft crunch underfoot of sand, and the faint whisper of the wind. Now Loford followed Rolf, and then the girl, with Chup alert to hear pursuers in the rear. They left the caravanserai kilometers behind, while the stars spun slowly around the one that marked the Pole. Rolf strode on into the unknown with confidence, though he had only a hazy idea of what kind of country lay in that direction, and no idea at all of the goal that Ardneh wanted him finally to reach. No one spoke, except that once or twice a faint whisper-mutter with the rhythm of magic in it came forward to Rolf’s ears, and soon thereafter arose what might have been perfectly natural pushes of wind against their faces, wind howling back down along their trail with strength enough to pull sand over their footprints.
Rolf now and again looked up, trying to catch sight of wide bird-wings against the stars. But there were none.
“We had best get clear of this open sand before morning,” Chup growled once, low-voiced, from the rear. Rolf only grunted in reply. The need was obvious. Rolf stepped up his pace a little more. Now he could hear Catherine’s breathing. But the girl kept up without faltering.
The hours of the night turned on. There was no pause for rest. No hint of dawn had yet appeared in the clear sky when Rolf noticed that the characterof the country was changing. The gentle dunes grew steeper, and among them there jutted up hillocks and humps of worn, eroded clay. Grass and bushes, appeared in a thin scattering, then became noticeably thicker. As the eastern sky began to brighten subtly, the clay hills came to dominate the land. These turned into a plateau across which the travelers walked, scrambling frequently through small ravines that lay across their path, or following those that ran for a time along it. Some of these narrow ravines were steep enough to have small overhangs along their sides, and these, when the morning sky began to brighten up in earnest, afforded some possibility of hiding for the day.
Rolf chose a place, which was then improved by digging back a little into the clay bank, the excavated material being carefully scattered where it would not show. Now, lying on the narrow ledge that they had made, it was possible to see back for nearly a kilometer in the way that they had come, and for some forty or fifty meters along the ravine in the other direction. And from this direction, now, at last, came Mewick and the other members of the patrol; or most of them, rather. There were five riders, not six, approaching.
The four who had just lain down in weariness sprang up again. Mewick reined in below their ledge, saying: “The birds have just now gone to shelter for the day. We would have caught up with you sooner, but – ” He made a gesture of weariness, dismissing causes pointless to enumerate now. He and his mount, and the men and animals behind him, looked tired, and some had new bandages to show. “There is cavalry on your trail, not two kilometers back. They dared to follow you out by night, and we were not enough for a real ambush. We only delayed them a little and I lost Latham.”
It registered now with Rolf whose face was missing, whose animal was being led in the rear with the other spares. The shock of a friend’s loss came and was set aside in the pile of losses that must someday be dealt with somehow. Now Rolf only asked: “How many of them?” As he spoke he was packing his meager gear into a roll, getting ready to bundle it onto the back of the best spare riding-beast.
“Fifty. Thereabouts,” said Mewick wearily. “Through divination or otherwise they must have some inkling of the importance of what you took; else I think they would not have come onto your trail at night, no. The Constable is leading them in person. Has Ardneh any offering of guidance now?”
“Only that I must go on, with what I carry.” Rolf finished tying his bundle onto the beast and swung himself up into its saddle. His eye fell on Catherine, and saw in her a desperation made calm only by her great weariness. The mention of Ardneh had probably meant nothing to her, he realized. Most probably she feared only one thing more than being with this bandit gang – there was still no reason for her to think them anything but bandits-and that one thing was being left behind by them, to be retaken by the East. “Mount up, girl,” he ordered, pointing to another ready animal. “Come with me.” Only after he had spoken did he realize that there was a deeper purpose than compassion, or any selfish want, behind his words. ‘
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