“I’ll do my best,” said Arnfinn. At that the man actually made himself smile, though he was sweating with the struggle he had to make against his fear. And even in his presence his wife looked at Arnfinn with open invitation in her eyes.
Speaking together, man and wife refused his coins when he would have paid them for the food.
Arnfinn did not insist. He feared that he might need the money. Slowly he moved out into the street again, where he stood munching bread and sausage as he watched the endless parade of passing strangers. He puzzled over what the people in the shop had said to him. Why should not Honan-Fu survive? He was going to have to find out.
The most direct route from his present location to Lady Ninazu’s manor, as Arnfinn calculated it, lay through a busy-looking part of the town. But he felt that he was beginning to grow accustomed to his situation with the Sword. And he wanted to talk to someone. Someone would have to tell him what had befallen the good wizard.
Passing through what he thought was probably the busiest street, Arnfinn was suddenly accosted by a young girl who bore a baby in her arms. It was obvious from the girl’s first words to him that she saw Arnfinn as her former lover, the baby’s father, and demanded some acknowledgment of responsibility from him.
Then she fell back a little, as if amazed at her own temerity in accosting him thus. He remained silent, trying to think of what he ought to say. Meanwhile the girl’s baby, looking at Arnfinn, displayed the greatest curiosity and delight.
Then suddenly the infant, still looking at him, screamed in terror.
Taking advantage of the distraction, he broke away from the girl, and moved on at a fast walk, leading his load beast, the sheathed Sword banging against his leg. People scattered at his approach.
The girl followed him a little way, then gave up, screaming some despairing insult. When he was sure that she had abandoned the chase, Arnfinn paused for breath. To a small boy who stood staring at him he spoke, asking directions to the docks. And was promptly hailed by an old man who, with tears in his blind, staring eyes, groped his way with trembling arms to Arnfinn, and seized him in a hug.
“Come home with me now, Will! You’re mother’s there. She’ll be so glad to see you’re safe after all-”
Arnfinn, his control deserting him, broke free from the old man’s grasp and ran again. He rushed like a madman through the remainder of the town, looking neither to left nor right. When from behind him he heard yet another cry, as of despair, he did not stop to see whether it was directed at him or not.
Dusk was coming on when at last he found himself standing at the edge of open country, in front of the manor house where he was certain she must live.
Arnfinn stared at the closed heavy grillwork of the tall front gate leading to the grounds. He was physically very tired after his day’s journey, and also worn by the strain of all that had happened since his arrival in the town. But now he found that he could not rest until he had managed to learn something more about her. Could she be safe, if there was doubt as to whether the powerful wizard, her father, was still alive?
Not even with the powers of the Sword in hand did he dare to simply present himself at the gate of the manor and ask-or demand-to be admitted. There would be guards and attendants there, and the gods only knew who they would think he was. They would let him in, by reason of love or fear; of that much Arnfinn felt certain. But what then? What would he say to the people he encountered inside?
What could he say to her if she appeared?
Trying to make up his mind as to what to do next, he circled the manor at a little distance, staring at the high stone wall that ringed it in. He was at some distance from the road, in an empty field that sloped down to the shoreline of the lake, when he heard the music of a lute, coming from somewhere beyond the wall. A moment later he heard the voice of a woman singing, and he imagined that that sweet voice must be hers.
There was another, smaller gate in the wall back here, and this one was standing open slightly. Looking through it, Arnfinn could see that it led to stables. There was a soldier slouching against the wall just outside the gate-Arnfinn knew little enough about soldiers, and could not have identified the red and gray uniform worn by this one even if it had occurred to him to try.
But the soldier was looking in his direction now, and he was going to have to do something. He walked forward, wondering what he was going to say.
The soldier snapped silently to attention, saluted, and drew the gate wide open. Arnfinn walked through, leading his load beast with him-the music of lute and voice seemed to draw him like a spell.
Just inside the gate he handed his animal’s reins over to one who reached for them with quiet efficiency. Then he walked on, unopposed, into the grounds. There were scattered trees, neat hedges, and broad lawns, now turning brown with autumn. And in the middle of one of those grassy spaces an arbor that must have been a pleasant shady place in summer, overgrown as it was with vines. But the leaves on the vines were dead now, and the oncoming night was already turning chill.
But she, the young lady Ninazu, was there anyway, sitting in the arbor, dressed as gloriously as he remembered, though in different garments. At her first glimpse of Arnfinn, even in the failing light, she jumped to her feet, letting her lute fall with an unmusical thud to the wooden floor of the summerhouse.
“By all the gods,” she said to him, and her voice had in it such soft intensity that his own voice, despite all that he could do, almost broke out, stuttering a protest. “By all the gods,” she breathed, “it’s you, and you have not forgotten me. My crystal foretold that I would see you soon.”
And for once the emotions written by Sightblinder upon a human countenance were too complex for Arnfinn to interpret.
But the girl had jumped up from her seat and was running toward him. And in the next moment he was being passionately embraced and kissed.
“A PIECE of good luck for us at last,” said Ben, looking at the Sword, complete with belt and sheath, where Zoltan had dropped it on the ground at their feet. The three had brought Sightblinder back with them to their hillside observation post, which lay behind a screen of low evergreens through which it was possible to watch much of what went on in the town below. The youth from whom they had taken the Sword of Stealth had already completed his hasty descent into the town, had appeared briefly in those streets below, and then passed out of their sight. Already Ben, at least, had almost forgotten him.
Zoltan now put out his hand and stroked the hilt of Sightblinder again. As he did so, he momentarily became Prince Mark in the eyes of his two companions. Then Zoltan drew back his hand and squatted, gazing silently at the Sword of Stealth.
Ben went on: “But even the best luck is no good until it’s used, and we must find the right way to use it.”
“We must also keep in mind,” said Lady Yambu, “that Shieldbreaker is almost certainly on the island now, in the hands of the one who sent the griffin to carry away your Prince. And the person who carries it will doubtless be the most dangerous enemy with whom we shall have to deal. Whoever has the Sword of Force in hand will be immune to the powers of Sightblinder or any other weapon.”
“And so far we have no idea who he is. Or she,” Zoltan put in. He got to his feet and stood staring toward the islands.
“I have been here in Triplicane eleven days,” said Yambu, “listening to the rumors that pass among the townsfolk. And I can give you an answer to that question. The new ruler of that castle in the lake is called the Ancient One, or sometimes Ancient Lord. He…” She fell silent, observing Zoltan’s reaction.
“If that’s his name I have seen him once before,” said Zoltan. “And I was lucky to survive.”
Ben, looking at him, nodded slowly. “Two years ago, or thereabouts, that was. Well we remember it, in Tasavalta. But we still know little of this Ancient Lord. Our ignorance about the enemies we face here is certainly enormous.” The big man turned to the lady. “I wonder what Sightblinder would show the new ruler of the magician’s island if one of us appeared carrying it, and if its power were not blocked by Shieldbreaker?”