Ben edged away a little. The griffin ignored him totally.
“Ben?” Zoltan’s voice quavered slightly. “I think it expects me to get on and ride it.”
Somehow the dignity of the beast’s gaze made it look more intelligent as well as larger than any of the more ordinary flyers-not a difficult standard to surpass.
“Ben? Magicians do ride them, don’t they?”
Ben opened his mouth and closed it. He didn’t know what to advise.
The griffin was looking at Zoltan as an intelligent riding-beast might have looked, waiting patiently for its master to climb into the saddle.
“I’m going to do it,” Zoltan decided.
“Maybe I should be the one to ride it,” the big man muttered, but even as he spoke he was edging away from the griffin a little more, and he was unable to muster any great enthusiasm behind the words.
“You obviously can’t-you weigh a ton and a half, to begin with.”
“I doubt that would matter much to a griffin. From all I’ve heard, they fly more by magic than by muscle.”
But Zoltan, though showing signs of trepidation, was already climbing aboard the half-feathered and half-furred creature’s back. In a moment his feet were in the stirrups and he was as firmly in the saddle as a man could be. Now it was apparent that there were no reins to grip.
AH was not well, however. The great beast clamored and snarled, and breathed out other noises less definable. It moved on its feet and stretched its wings, but it did not take off. Instead, with Zoltan helplessly on its back, it stood up on its two mismatched pairs of legs and turned toward Ben. Awkwardly it walked closer to him, still making unearthly noises. When its beak opened, there were no teeth to be seen, but the beak itself looked as dangerous as a scimitar.
“I think,” Ben said, gripping his staff, “it doesn’t like me.”
“Maybe it recognizes you somehow as an enemy. Might the problem be that it doesn’t want me to leave you here unguarded?”
“That’s an idea, but I don’t know what we can do about it. Chop my head off before you go.”
Meanwhile the squadron of lesser flyers, apparently taking a cue from the griffin, had reformed itself in the air and was fluttering around Ben, cawing and snarling menacingly. The moving circle of the creatures tightened on him. His repeated gestures of submission had no effect, nor did Zoltan’s tentative efforts to take command.
Neither man had any idea of how to go about giving these creatures orders, beyond shouting human speech at them, and making crude gestures. Zoltan tried these methods now, to no avail.
“Wait, I have an idea,” Zoltan announced. He shouted at the beasts until their clamoring had stilled to some degree. Then he spoke to Ben. “See that shed over there?”
Ben turned to look. There was some fisherman’s outbuilding, big as a small house, dilapidated and by all appearances long-deserted, but intact in basic structure.
Zoltan went on: “I’ll lock you up in that. What do you think? Close the door on you anyway. At worst it shouldn’t take you a minute to kick your way out again, once we’re, uh, out of sight.”
Ben got the idea, and walked ahead when Zoltan, once more dismounted, urged him along with an imperious gesture. In a few moments they were at the shed. When Ben pulled open the ill-fitting door, the interior proved to have two rooms. The floors in both rooms were of earth, and both contained piles of crates and other fisherman’s gear, looking long disused. And a good part of the back wall of the building was actually missing; there were holes in it through which a man would be able to crawl out any time.
Such niceties were evidently beyond the understanding of the small flyers who were circling the building now. These happily abated their clamor as soon as Ben had gone inside the shack and passed out of their sight. Meanwhile the griffin, maintaining its dignity, remained in front.
With a sigh of relief Ben moved through the first room, on into the room that was farther from the door. There, a narrow space between the rough planks of the wall facing the beach offered a chance for him to observe what happened next.
He could hear Zoltan stumbling around somewhere in the first room, behind him; there was a slight delay before the young man appeared in the doorway to the second. There he stood, regarding Ben with a rather odd expression.
Ben demanded: “What’s the trouble? If you don’t want to trust yourself to that thing in flight, well, I don’t blame you. But I’ll give it a try if you don’t.”
“Never mind,” Zoltan answered after staring at him a moment longer. “Here I go.” He turned and left the room.
And a moment later Ben, looking out through the crack between the planks, saw Prince Mark stride out to greet the waiting flyers, and Barbara vaulted again onto the griffin’s back. In a moment the whole flock was airborne once again. And only moments after that they were well out over the water, fading rapidly into the dusky sky.
Yambu, after bidding her new allies a farewell on the hillside above the town, had returned directly to the inn. There she quickly hired a man to transport her modest luggage down to the docks-she might easily have carried the few things herself, but now it was time to consider the matter of status once again. As she was paying her bill at the inn the proprietor told her that the Maid of Lakes and Rivers had arrived at last. She took the news as a good omen.
In another few minutes she was at the docks. There the captain of the newly-arrived riverboat made an effort to intercept the determined-looking lady before she could step onto his deck. He told her that if she was the passenger he had heard about, the pilgrim lady who wished to go far downriver, she would have to wait. He had already been summoned out to the island, with his boat and entire crew.
That was news to Yambu, but she would not admit it. “But of course, my man, I want to go to the island. You may cast off as soon as my luggage is on board.”
A moment later, Yambu was standing on the deck. And the captain was at least half-convinced that her wish to visit the island was the real reason he had been ordered to take his boat there.
The dirty deck and modest deckhouse offered no spot suitable for a lady to sit down, and so she stood, with dignity. Her attire of course was far from queenly; but then it was the dress of a pilgrim, and even a queen, once she put on the gray of pilgrimage, might become hard to distinguish from a commoner.
Yambu was still waiting on deck for the short voyage to begin, gazing unseeingly at the remnants of a white poster of some kind affixed to a nearby bollard, when a high, wild, inhuman cry, faint with distance, made her look up into the darkening sky.
The moon, near full, was newly risen; and as she watched a dark shape passed across its disk, as of a flying creature that bore a human being on its back.
EMERGING cautiously from the shed into the rapidly thickening dusk, Ben looked out over the lake. The islands now were no more than ghostly little clouds, almost invisible in the last light of the sun and the rising glow of the newly risen moon.
He wished Zoltan well.
He began moving carefully eastward along the shore, still determined to gain possession of a boat if it was humanly possible to do so. With the Sword gone to where it was more urgently needed, he might need to use craft or violence to achieve his purpose. But he was determined that somehow, before the dawn-
He had proceeded for no more than about twenty paces along the shore when a sound behind him made him whirl. Out of the ruined shed a figure staggered, then turned through the dusk toward Ben. It was holding one hand to the top of its head.
Ben raised his staff to guard position and moved to meet the apparition. In a moment he dropped his weapon, recognizing Zoltan.
“Gods and demons! Why aren’t you-?” Helplessly Ben shifted his gaze out over the darkening lake; the griffin and its passenger had long since passed out of sight. He turned back to the swaying form before him.
Zoltan sat down with a crunch in the rough, damp shingle that made up the shoreline here. “I’m not out there, if that’s what you’re asking, because I’m still here. I was just on my way into the shed for a last word with you…. Someone must have hit me over the head. I’m getting a lump the size of an egg.”