He came out on another untenanted small balcony, from which he hoped to be able to see the window, and found to his satisfaction that he was closer to it. Taking a shortcut that involved some risky climbing-by this time risks were assuming a different proportion-he soon found himself standing on yet another balcony, near enough to the lady’s window to allow them to conduct a quiet conversation.
“Who is it?” she whispered out to him, the imperious tone that he remembered still lingering in her voice. “Zoltan or Ben?”
Arnfinn, trying to understand that question, wondered if the lady could be speaking of a pair of twins, so that she did not know which one she thought she saw. Or, were Ben and Zoltan two different people, and had she seen him as first one and then the other as he approached?
“What does it matter?” he whispered back. Then, bluntly: “I must know. Where are the important prisoners being held?”
He could see her shake her head impatiently and blink. “Prisoners? I know where the one of most importance is, at least. If you can get me out of this comfortable cell, I’ll take you directly to him.”
AS soon as Zoltan felt steady enough on his feet to travel, he continued with Ben along the shoreline in the direction away from Triplicane. They met no one as they walked. From time to time Ben cast a glowering look out over the lake, but the griffin, along with its unknown rider, and their flying escort of lesser creatures, had all disappeared into the distances of the darkening lacustrine sky.
Still Ben and Zoltan moved on. As the dusk deepened around them they stumbled around and over two more deserted docks, but except for one half-sunken hulk there were no boats of any kind to be discovered.
By this time both men were almost staggering with weariness. Abandoning their efforts for the time being, they sought shelter in a small hillside grove of evergreens, only a stone’s throw from the water. There, on ground softly carpeted with needles, they slept until it was almost dawn.
Zoltan, who was the first to come fully awake, immediately set about scrounging up some breakfast. Seldom had he ever undertaken a journey of any length without bringing along a fisherman’s line and a few hooks, and this trek to Alk-maar had been no exception. He could hear the downhill rush of a small stream that ran nearby, screened by trees. The underside of a log yielded a few juicy grubs for bait. Meanwhile Ben, groaning himself awake at last, came up with the flint and steel necessary to get a fire started.
Zoltan’s skill, aided by moderate good luck, soon provided a few fish. As the two men breakfasted, discussing their problems and peering out over the lake, a pair of large rowboats came into sight through the usual sunrise mist and the accompanying strange optical effects. The boats, filled with soldiers uniformed in gray and red, were following the shoreline from the direction of the town.
Ben cast a quick glance upward, making sure that his small fire was producing no visible smoke. But the soldiers in the boats were not scanning for evidence of campfires. A little farther along the shore, in the direction they were going, stood a small fisherman’s house, dark and deserted-looking in the dawn. But the house proved not to be deserted. When the big rowboats grounded in front of it and the troops poured ashore and into the building, screams and cries for mercy followed quickly.
Soon the soldiers were dragging a woman out of the house, while screams in a man’s hoarse voice went on inside. And now they were bringing children out.
Zoltan, young as he was, had seen bad things before, but still he could not watch this. Instead he moved to a little slope facing away from the house, where he sat with his fingers in his ears.
Ben, his ugly face looking as if it were carved from stone, the breeze from the lake ruffling his graying hair, sat watching through it all. He wanted to know all that he could about the enemy. Even at the distance he tried to pick out individuals among them, for possible future reference.
The officer in charge of the troops, a red-haired man with a penetrating voice, looked on indulgently during the rape and killing. When that had been concluded, he ordered a few of his men aboard the single small fishing boat tied at the dock beside the house. The little craft appeared to be leaky-Ben could see the prize crew bailing industriously before they put their oars into the locks. Soon all three boats were rowing back in the direction of the town.
Ben swore gloomy oaths. He said to Zoltan, who by now had rejoined him: “One of the things the bastards are doing, then, is rounding up all the available boats. No wonder we couldn’t find one to borrow last night.”
“If we’d just kept going a little longer we might have had that one,” Zoltan grumbled, watching it disappear. He was still pale from listening to the screams, and now and then he touched the place on the back of his head where he had been hit.
“And it’s small wonder, too,” Ben went on, “that we have seen practically no people on the shore. The fisher folk all around the lake, or this end of it anyway, must be abandoning everything and moving out.”
“So what do we do now?”
“I don’t know.”
Zoltan turned his head. “Sounds like someone coming. Uphill, that way.”
There was a path in that direction, not very far away, but pretty effectively screened by evergreens. And now there was a lone man, in drab civilian clothing, walking on the path.
“Shall we keep quiet, or say hello to him?”
“Let’s ask him how the weather’s been.”
When they appeared suddenly on the path, one in front of the man and one behind him, he collapsed at once in a terrified heap, signing that his pockets were empty and he had nothing to give them. But he was quickly convinced that they were not robbers and meant him no harm. Then he became willing to talk; indeed it was almost impossible to stop him for long enough to get a question in.
He was a wiry man of middle size, with bushy black eyebrows starting to turn gray. His name, he said, was Haakon, and he was, or had been, a part-time weaver of fishing nets, as well as a former member of the constabulary serving Honan-Fu. It had not been a very energetic or well-disciplined outfit, according to Haakon, and now he, like the other members that he knew about, was lying low and had even burned his old uniform.
Haakon went on to relate how, at the time of the takeover a few days ago, he had seen a small army of the invaders come down one of the small rivers that emptied into the lake, and approach the castle. He estimated now that there had been about two hundred soldiers, in ten or twelve boats.
“You and your constabulary made no resistance?”
“We weren’t even called to duty before it was all over, the castle lost, and Honan-Fu dropped out of sight. Anyway, it would have taken us days to mobilize effectively.”
Ben fixed his eyes on the man in a steady gaze. “I think it’s time you got together now. Going by what you say yourself, there’s no huge army occupying the castle -not yet anyway. It could be retaken, if you didn’t advertise that you were coming.”
Haakon appeared to consider that. “Well-there could have been other troops arrive that I didn’t see. And I’m not one of the constabulary officers.”
“Then find your officers, man. Or choose new ones. Did you see what just happened to that family of fisher folk down there? Where is the rest of this constabulary now?”
“I don’t know. Scattered about.” Haakon obviously was beginning to regret that he had spoken so openly to these strangers on the subject. No, he had no idea as to where any boats could possibly be found now. The invaders had been gathering them all up.
“And where,” asked Zoltan, “can we find you if we should want to talk to you again?”
The man looked from one of them to the other. “They know me at Stow’s shop in Triplicane,” he said at last. The information was given out so reluctantly that Ben and Zoltan, exchanging glances, both believed it was the truth.
Presently, after making their informant a present of the single fish left over from their breakfast-a gift he accepted gratefully-and wishing him good luck, Ben and Zoltan walked on.
When the two were sure they were alone again, Zoltan asked: “We are going to keep on looking for a boat? Despite the evidence that there aren’t any available?”