“An interesting question,” Yambu acknowledged, “even if not immediately pertinent. What, or whom, does this Ancient Master of evil fear above all else? It is probably pointless to try to imagine anyone whom he might love.”
Ben nodded. “But as you say, those questions will have to wait. Now we face others that must be answered. Two or three people cannot share the powers of this Sword. One of us must take it to the island, and use it to look for Mark. Now, which of us carries it? And what do the other two do to help?”
“The question of who takes the Sword must lie between you two, I think,” said Lady Yambu. “Because I ought to be perfectly able to visit the mysterious islanders without its help.” Reading the question in her companions’ faces, she explained: “Why should not I, as a former queen, pay a courtesy call upon whatever power now rules those rocks?”
Ben ruminated on that idea. “We certainly don’t have to tell you how great the risks might be. Are you really willing to accept that danger, to help a former enemy?”
The former queen spoke sharply in reply. “You certainly do not have to tell me about the risks, especially now that you have already managed to do so. We have made an agreement, you and I, and I intend to abide by it. And remember that in my day I have faced the Dark King himself; so I feel no uncontrollable trembling at the prospect of encountering this usurper; let him be as ancient as he likes.”
Zoltan was nodding. And Ben, after a little more thought, nodded his approval too. “All right, my lady. Make your visit to the island as you wish, if you are able to arrange for one. Meanwhile the Prince’s nephew and I will somehow settle between us the use of the Sword. But I have one more question for you, my lady, before we wrestle with that decision.”
She returned him a look of cool inquiry.
He asked: “About that little dragon you dispatched. What result may we expect from it, assuming that the creature was not devoured in midair?”
“If I were you,” the lady answered, “I should expect nothing. We must do what we can on our own.” Then she softened a trifle. “I have good reason for keeping silent, I assure you.”
The men exchanged a look but said no more on the subject.
“You have a means of transport to the island?” Zoltan asked the lady.
“I have said I do not expect much trouble in arranging that.”
Ben shrugged, and said: “It is agreed, then. We will make our separate ways out to the castle on the island, and meet and communicate with each other as best we can when we are there.” He paused, considering. “A mad-sounding plan, if it can even be called a plan at all. But we lack the knowledge to make plans with any greater intelligence, and I for one cannot simply sit here and wait.”
“Nor I,” Zoltan put in quickly.
“Then it is agreed, as you say,” Yambu answered firmly. “And now, gentlemen, I bid you good-bye for the time being. And good luck.”
A few minutes later, Ben and Zoltan were making their way along the shoreline of the lake, heading east, in the direction away from the town. Zoltan carried Sight-blinder, balancing in one hand the belt, the jeweled sheath, and the blade that it contained.
Their tentative plan, which they were trying to put into a more solid shape as they walked, was to commandeer a small boat somewhere along the shore-given the Sword’s powers, there should be no great difficulty about that. Once in possession of a boat, they would make their way out to the islands. Whether there would be any advantage in waiting for darkness before they set out across the water was something they had not yet decided.
“I should be the one to carry Sightblinder when we go,” said Barbara, Ben’s diminutive, dark-haired wife, walking now beside Ben where a moment ago Prince Mark had been striding blithely along. Then Barbara turned her face toward Ben, grew in stature to his own height or a trifle more, and suddenly possessed blue eyes and long hair of a flaming red. He had to look away.
“You’ll be my prisoner,” his companion went on, now speaking to Ben in a voice Ben had never forgotten, that of Yambu’s daughter, Ariane. “No one will try to stop us on the way to the island dungeons-every castle has a dungeon, doesn’t it?-and that’s where we’ll find Uncle Mark. There should be no problem unless we run directly into whoever now has Shieldbreaker-what’s the matter?” The speaker’s voice abruptly deepened at the end.
Ben dared to turn his head for another look, and saw Prince Mark walking beside him again, engaged in plotting his own rescue.
“Therefore,” said Ben, “we must take care not to run into him.” He nodded grudgingly. “The plan you propose has some merit. Not much, but perhaps more than any other we are likely to be able to devise in the small time we have to work with.”
Striding around the shoreline of a cove, they passed a small wooden dock, on the verge of total abandonment if not already past it. The only vessel at the dock, a small rowboat, now rested half-sunken in the shallows, where, if moss and discoloration were any evidence, it had been resting for a long time. A couple of meters inland stood an upright post, which had probably once supported a partial roof over the facility. Stuck lightly to this post, and stirring in the breeze as if to call attention to itself, was a torn and shabby paper poster. Ben, driven by a vague though desperate yearning for any kind of information, paused to peel the loosened paper from the wood-it was an advertisement for what sounded like a traveling carnival, described in large, crude printing as the Magnificent Traveling Show of Ensor.
Still clutching this piece of paper absently in his hand, Ben walked on. Zoltan, now wearing the aspect of Ben’s young daughter Beth, walked at his side. Ben looked down at the sturdy, half-grown girl taking her short steps, and said to Zoltan: “Did your uncle Mark ever tell you how he once played a role in a small traveling show? I was in it too. Probably this one is much like that one.”
“He’s mentioned something about it,” Prince Mark said, taller than Ben again and taking long strides, longer than Ben’s, beside him. “You were the strongman, of course?”
“No,” the huge man answered vaguely. Again becoming aware of the paper still in his hand, he looked at it. ” ‘The next performance in Triplicane,'” he quoted, ‘”will be at the time of the Harvest Festival.’ Which must be rapidly approaching in these parts, I suppose, though there can’t be much growing on these rocky slopes for anyone to harvest.”
“Unless they’re counting the lake’s fish as the main crop. And I thought I saw some indication of vineyards on the high slopes there, farther on.” It was Ariane who gestured at the hills.
Half an hour later Ben and his variable companion were still walking along the shore, having had no success in finding a suitable boat, when with little warning a small cloud of fierce flying creatures fell upon them from the clouded sky.
Ben fought back with his staff, and Zoltan raised the keen-edged Sword. But in a matter of moments they realized that they were not under attack at all. The strange hybrid flyers were not coming to tear them apart, but to offer service. They circled nearby, then landed on the ground, wrapping themselves in leathery wings; they recoiled from the blows of Ben’s staff, not as attackers would dodge back but cringingly, jaws closed and ears laid back in submission, like beasts trying to avoid punishment.
“What dolts we are!” said Ben. “It is the Sword, of course. They take you for someone else, some human lord that they are bound to serve.” He spoke openly, having no fear that beasts like these would be able to understand more than the simplest words of human speech.
“Of course,” said his wife, Barbara, and lowered Sightblinder’s keen steel. “What do we do now?”
Before Ben could decide upon an answer, a new factor had entered the situation. A griffin descended from the upper air to circle majestically, looking the scene over. Presumably it was the same creature that had carried off Prince Mark-even in the stories there was never more than one griffin at a time-but it was now equipped with a saddle, saddlebags, and stirrups.
After circling round the two men several times at low altitude, making the smaller flyers scatter in excitement, the griffin landed near Zoltan, who recoiled somewhat in spite of himself. The creature crouched there with its great wings folded, its eagle’s eyes staring at him over one feathered shoulder. When he did not move, it backed toward him a short distance and crouched lower.