Arnfinn’s right hand was entwined in a death grip in the long hair of the griffin’s leonine mane, while his left hand, close beside the right, was having trouble finding a solid grip. It grabbed at one tuft after another of what felt like eagle feathers, which pulled loose every time his fingers clamped upon them. He opened his eyes long enough to shift his grip, getting a firm hold with both fists on the hairy mane.
If this had been a riding-beast or a load beast Arnfinn would have felt reasonably confident of being able to control it, even without reins or saddle. But he was totally ignorant of the proper way to give this creature orders. He wondered if it was interpreting his efforts to cling to its back as some kind of commands.
That possibility was unsettling enough to force Arnfinn’s eyelids open again. This latest terrified glimpse suggested to him that he had now reached an altitude almost equal to that of the surrounding distant hills. On the positive side, he made the reassuring discovery that if he did not look straight down, he could keep his eyes open.
Presently he was sure that the griffin was now descending gradually, in almost a straight path toward the approximate center of the watery plain ahead, where from an island there arose the shadowed shape of the dark castle, marked here and there with sparks of torchlight.
Arnfinn had not appreciated how swift the griffin was, until, unbelievably, the castle was already very close beneath him. And then the creature was down, achieving a soft and springy landing. In a moment Arnfinn slid from its back and once more had solid rock beneath his feet, though he was still high above the surface of the surrounding lake.
Here, atop the highest tower of the castle, was an aerie the size of a small house, a place set aside to serve the arrivals and departures of aerial spies and messengers, and to provide the beasts with living space as well. Right now most of the roosts and cages stood empty. Whatever birds had once been kept there by Honan-Fu were dead now or departed, and evidently most of the reptilian and avian creatures serving the new masters of the castle were out on patrol.
The newly landed griffin, bulking larger than a riding-beast when it spread its wings, dominated the space. The few smaller creatures present were sent flapping and fluttering out of its way, making noisy cries of protest.
Arnfinn, once he had slipped gratefully from the creature’s back, lost no time in getting clear of it altogether. At the moment he scarcely cared where his feet were taking him, as long as they were firmly on solid ground again.
But even as the griffin moved away, walking somewhat awkwardly on its two mismatched pairs of legs, Arnfinn realized that a pair of human observers had witnessed his arrival. One of these men was standing by with a broom in hand, while the other held a small measure of grain. They were obviously low-ranking beast masters, handlers and caretakers of the creatures here.
It was equally obvious that the two unquestioningly accepted Arnfinn as a person of overwhelming importance, for they bowed themselves immediately out of his way, one of them spilling the grain from his measure in his haste to do so. Behind them as they moved, Arnfinn observed the upper end of a ladder. When he had scrambled down it he saw the head of a descending stair.
Flames in wall sconces of twisted metal burned at intervals on the way down, set close enough together to let him see the footing. After two turns of the spiral, when Arnfinn had reached a place where he was for the moment sheltered from all human sight, he paused. Leaning his back against the wall he took a few deep breaths. Clutching the talisman of his Sword with one hand, Arnfinn used the tattered sleeve of his free arm to wipe sweat from his face, despite the chill draft blowing down the stair.
He had done it now. He was really here.
The next question was, where would an important prisoner like Kunderu, a wizard and a wizard’s son, be likely to be hidden? Though Arnfinn had never been inside a castle before, he like everyone else knew that they were supposed to have dungeons underneath them. But he had also heard an old story or two in which prisoners of high rank and deemed especially important, or for some other reason deserving of special treatment, were kept locked up in high towers instead.
Anyway, since he had arrived atop the castle’s highest tower, he might as well begin his search efforts at the top.
There was another problem, which only now occurred to Arnfinn: once he had located Kunderu, and somehow secured his release, how were the two of them going to return to the mainland? Briefly he toyed with the idea of persuading the magically powerful griffin to carry two passengers at once. The flight had been a hideous experience, and he had no wish to repeat it, but it had the one blessed advantage of being quick; either he and Kunderu would promptly effect their escape, or else they would be promptly killed. The alternative to using the griffin would be to commandeer a boat…. Arnfinn decided he wasn’t going to make his choice just yet.
At the next landing down the tower stair, about twenty steps down from his first rest stop, he came to a narrow window through which he was able to survey the deepening night outside. Light enough remained for him to see that his griffin-mount, along with an escort of smaller flyers, had just taken off again, evidently heading out once more on patrol.
One question settled. He and Ninazu’s brother were going to have to get away by boat, and that in a way was a relief. He would not have to fly again.
Arnfinn moved on down.
Presently, now only moderately high in the castle’s architecture, he came out on a small terrace. This would be a good spot, he thought, from which to try to see what might be going on below, where parts of several open courtyards were visible. There were several lighted windows, as well, at his own level or a little higher, which he thought might repay investigation. He stood there beginning a survey.
Some time ago, Lady Yambu had given up listening at the door of the apartment to which she had been conducted as a guest. It was a comfortable enough place, even somewhat luxurious; but she was quite sure that if she left, or tried to leave, there would be a confrontation. She was effectively a prisoner. It was no more than she had expected.
Is this how I search for truth? she thought. But if I were not here, if I had determined to persevere very strictly in my pilgrimage, where would I be? Back at that damned room at the inn, probably, still waiting for another boat that might or might not be willing to take me down the Tungri.
Looking out from one of her gracefully thin windows-these quarters were certainly quite a change from her room at the inn-she saw, on a balcony at a slightly lower level, the figure of the Emperor. He was wearing his gray cape and a clown’s mask, and looking tentatively about him. In that first moment of recognition, despite her experience only hours ago, she had no doubt that it was really the Emperor she saw.
Only when she saw him inexplicably turn into the hideously pallid figure of the Dark King, dead now these many years, did Yambu suddenly realize that this must be Zoltan or Ben. One of them at least must have managed to reach the island with the Sword of Stealth.
Lady Yambu brought a candle over to the window, and began some cautious signaling.
Arnfinn’s attention was drawn to one window by the tiny movement of the flame inside it. The window was not many meters away, and despite the poor light, he at once recognized the gray-haired lady as one member of the infamous trio who had assaulted him and taken away the Sword. He was more than a little surprised to see her here. What she and her companions had said when they took his Sword away had made him think that they were not connected with the new lords of the lake and islands.
But, who was she seeing when she looked at him? Obviously not someone she greatly feared.
Arnfinn waved back, a slight, cautious gesture, and then began to work his way nearer her apartment, a task made considerably more difficult by his complete ignorance of the interior layout of the castle. Traveling through corridors that were almost completely dark, he found his vision somehow enhanced, he thought, by Sightblinder. What little was shown him by stray glints of light was easier to interpret in terms of real surfaces and distances.