He was out in the grounds of the manor, heading for the rear gate where he had come in, when he encountered one of the stable’s supervisors, who dared to speak to him.
The man bowed nervously. “It’s about the, uh, the griffin, my lord.”
“Sire, the steed on which you arrived last night. If it needs care, feeding… I confess that none of us this morning are able to see it as anything but an ordinary load beast.” And the man smiled, shaking his head in humble awe at the power of the lord’s magic.
“Then care for it as you would a load beast. I will return for it later.” And Arnfinn stalked on.
He wasn’t going to need the load beast now because he wasn’t going home. He couldn’t go home now….
On foot he wandered despairingly back toward the town. He was hopelessly, cruelly, insanely, suicidally, in love with Lady Ninazu. And in trying to love her, taking advantage of her, possessing her so falsely, he had wronged her terribly. If she were ever to find out how he had tricked her with the Sword…
But worse than her revenge, infinitely worse, would be the fact that then she would know him as he really was. The contemptible, vile, ugly, scrawny, cowardly, deceitful wretch he was-
Arnfinn sobbed as he walked, almost staggering with the burden of his guilt and his remorse. Not knowing, hardly caring, where he was going at the moment.
It seemed to him inevitable that he would be found out. And when he was, the lady, or the powerful wizard who must be her real lover, would have him cut up into small pieces, and the pieces burned. But no, before it ever came to that, he would kill himself out of sheer shame. It was impossible that he could ever find a way to make amends for what he had done to her-
If I could see my brother again, if I could know that he is free, and happy… I live for that.
Arnfinn could feel the terrible weight of the Sword dragging at his side. With such a weapon even a coward might be able to accomplish almost anything.
Between the lifeless trees of autumn he could see part of the lake, and the castle on its island.
Kunderu, she had said the man’s name was. Her twin brother, held prisoner out there for-how long, two years?-in punishment by their father, the oh-so-kindly Honan-Fu. In punishment for what? Arnfinn wondered briefly. She had said, implied, something about how she and her brother had helped the wizard she now called her dread lord….
But then that thought was pushed aside by another. Everyone ought to have known better, thought Arnfinn, than to believe that such a powerful old man as Honan-Fu could really be as benevolent as the stories painted him.
Arnfinn found a quiet place on a hillside, a little off the road, where he could sit down with his Sword and stare out at the castle. He had decided that he was ready to lay down his life, if need be, for the lady he had so cruelly wronged. He would find her twin brother, if the man called Kunderu was still alive, and he would release him.
The trouble was that Arnfinn had no idea of how to begin to go about performing such a feat. Except that he would have to take Sightblinder to the island, and somehow use its powers to achieve his end.
He would have to go out there to the castle ruled by the commander of the soldiers in red and gray, who had all the folk of Triplicane terrified. Out there into the den of the murderers and torturers. He, a country yokel-he knew what he was-would have to stand alone among them. Even if he did have one magic Sword, a weapon whose powers he scarcely understood-
Arnfinn was trying to picture himself where he had never been, in a world that he had never seen and could not very well imagine. In his imagination the parts of that world that he could not see clearly quickly filled up with terrible shadows.
Suppose, just suppose, that he were standing there now, in the great hall of that castle, making demands of one who sat there upon a throne-of one who was in all likelihood the real and jealous lover of Lady Ninazu. In a great hall with columns taller than the trees of the forest, and filled with people, crafty and deadly people, devious magicians and brutal warriors who did not know what it meant to be afraid, men and women whose business had been plotting and uncovering plots almost from the day that they were born.
If he, Arnfinn, who now feared to cross the town square because of the strangers who might accost him, were in that castle, what would he be able to do there?
Assuming that the magicians on the island were as subject to Sightblinder’s powers as the peasants along the road-but how could he even assume that?-then what would happen? What image would those wizards and clever warriors see when they looked at Arnfinn?
When no two of them, perhaps, saw him as the same person, how long would it take them to understand what was happening?
For an hour he sat brooding on the hillside, the drawn steel of Sightblinder in his hands, digging little holes in the earth with the god-forged point of it and cutting up twigs with the almost invisible keenness of its edge.
Fear receded gradually. His breathing grew easier, his heartbeat slowed and steadied, and the knot in his stomach began to untie itself. Because he wasn’t going to start for the island this moment. No, he saw now that he couldn’t do that. This was going to require some planning.
Later in the day, wandering hesitantly among the hills at the far end of town from the manor, unable to make up his mind on any decisive course of action, Arnfinn came upon a deserted hut. The shack stood at some distance from any of the regularly used paths and roads that crossed the landscape. The hut provided him with partial shelter, and that night and on succeeding nights he slept uneasily in it, with an intermittent drizzle penetrating the overhanging branches and the ruined roof. At least he felt secure that no one was going to bother him here.
Each night, after a day of aimless wandering and scrounging food, he dozed off in the hut, hoping that no one would find him-and hoping even more fervently that no wild beast was going to come along, indifferent to the personal identities of its human victims as long as they had flesh and blood to eat. But in his cooler moments, Arnfinn supposed it unlikely that any such large predator would lurk so close to a large town.
He was still living in that hut three days later, scrounging food in and near the town as best he could, avoiding human contact as much as possible, and trying to nerve himself for the attempt to do what Lady Ninazu wanted done, when the three ill-assorted strangers waylaid him and took his magic Sword away from him.
And an hour after he had lost the Sword, rousing himself from his hopeless vigil across the road from the gates of Lady Ninazu’s manor, he moved and thought with a fatalistic calm. There was nowhere in the world for him to go, nothing else that he could do, until he had retrieved the Sword-somehow-and used it as he knew he must, to try to make amends to the lady he had so cruelly wronged.
When, later, Arnfinn saw the huge man and the shifting form of one who must hold the Sword, walking together along the shore of the lake, he stalked them.
AGAINST this terror, the Sword of Stealth was as useless as a pin. Riding the griffin high above the lake, Arnfinn gritted his teeth to keep himself from screaming in dread of the sheer drop below him. In the distance, the last tinges of the sunset were reflected in the water, but directly underneath him there was nothing but an incredible gulf of air with black water at the bottom of it.
In the next moment he had to close his eyes as well. But even with his eyes closed he could still feel in his stomach that he was aboard a flying creature, with only a vast emptiness beneath. Even the escort of small creatures with which he had left the shore had now been left behind.
He remembered once, when he was a small boy, seeing a small flying predator struggling terribly to lift a half-grown rabbit, and in his guts he could not really believe that this beast beneath him could go on from one moment to the next supporting his weight.