“Unless you have a better idea.”
“We could have a try ourselves at raising this constabulary that our friend talked about.”
Ben shook his head. “If they can’t raise themselves under these circumstances, we wouldn’t have much chance. We’re outsiders, strangers. They’d never be willing to trust us in time to do Mark any good.”
Zoltan trudged on another score of paces before he spoke again. “We could remain in hiding until night falls again, and then swim out to the castle on a couple of logs.”
“That’s crazy. But all right, we’re going to have to do something. And what we’re doing now is getting us nowhere.”
The soldier who had just appeared on the slope ahead spotted them an instant after Zoltan had seen him. His bold command to halt was directed at their fleeing backs.
A moment later a whole squad of voices had joined in the clamor. There would certainly be pursuit. The two who fled had not much of a start, and each glance back showed soldiers coming on in energetic fashion. And now, to make matters worse, a couple of enemy flying scouts had ceased their observant high circling out over the water and joined in the chase across the land.
When these creatures, emboldened by their gathering numbers, dared to dive within range, Ben beat at them with his long staff and drove them off. After that the flyers stayed at a safe altitude, circling and cawing raucously to guide the soldiers in the right direction.
The chase went on, with the enemy gaining slightly. Their gasping quarry climbed a difficult rock slope, and clambered down another, getting a little farther ahead again.
Zoltan, when he had time and breath to spare, threw rocks and curses at the flyers, and prayed to all the gods and demons for a sling. But he had no sling, and none appeared.
The moments in which the two fugitives dared to pause for rest were rare. And now, slowly, they were being forced back in the direction of the town.
One of the flyers suddenly broke away from the circling flock above and flew in that direction.
“The people chasing us have signaled it to call for reinforcements,” Ben grunted. “They’ll try to pen us in between the patrol that’s following us and troops come out from the town.”
But no reinforcements appeared, and still the two Tasavaltans were not caught. The chase continued in zigzag course; the day wore on until the sun had turned past its high point. Here and there a rill of water, tumbling from broken rock, offered the fugitives a chance to get a drink. As for eating, they had no time.
Either the flyer had had trouble in locating a responsive officer in town, or the enemy were beset by other difficulties and had none readily available. All day long the hiding and chasing continued inconclusively. The sky turned gray, and a fine, misting rain began to fall.
At last Zoltan, crouched wearily in a dripping thicket, could say to Ben: “Another hour and it’ll be dark.”
And then somehow, at last, it was dark, and they were still alive and free. Now the chance existed for the two of them to slip away, get through the hills and on the road back to Tasavalta.
“Not that they mightn’t catch us tomorrow,” Zoltan qualified in a weary voice.
But Ben had a different idea. “I think that we ought to go into town instead.”
Zoltan raised an eyebrow, considering. “Well, they won’t be expecting us to do that.”
“No, they won’t. And there’ll be boats there, we can be certain of that much. Guarded, no doubt. But hanging around out here in the hills, we have small chance of staying alive, and no chance of accomplishing anything useful. I say it’s either go into town or head for home.”
“If we were going to run for home,” said Zoltan, “we would have done it long ago.”
At least the rain had stopped again, and their pursuers had apparently given up for the night. After an hour’s sorely needed rest, Ben and Zoltan ate such scraps of food as they still had with them, and then made their way slowly and cautiously toward Triplicane and into its streets.
But hardly had they got well in among the streets and houses when there sounded a renewed outcry and pursuit.
They ran again. A dark alley offered a moment’s respite, but there were all too few dark alleys in a town this size. Ben grunted. “We must split up, it’s our only chance.”
“And meet where?”
“At the castle on the island,” Ben answered grimly. “When we can. Or in the next world if there is one.”
Zoltan looked at Ben as if he would have said some kind of a farewell. But then he only nodded, and, with lots of running still in him, went dashing swiftly away.
Ah, youth, thought Ben with heartfelt envy. He slumped down quietly where he was in the shadows, and just sat there for a few moments regaining some breath and energy while he listened to see if Zoltan should make good at least a temporary escape.
Before distance had entirely swallowed the sound of the young man’s running steps, they broke off in an indeterminate scramble. Ben strained his ears, but he could hear nothing more. There were no cries of triumph, or other indication that Zoltan had been killed or taken.
He could, of course, proceed himself in the same direction and try to investigate. But, no, whatever had happened, the two of them had split up. One of them at least had to get out to Mark, on the island. The damned island; it was beginning to seem half a continent away.
When Ben moved again it was in the opposite direction from the one Zoltan had taken.
He went down the remaining length of the original dark alley, and then was pleasantly surprised to see the mouth of another one just across the street. After that alley there came another. When he had progressed for some distance in this fashion, he dared to cross a space of open moonlight. He was heading as best he could toward the water, where surely there would be boats, even if they were guarded.
Then again there were torches behind Ben, and voices, and he thought he heard a war beast snarling, or perhaps it was only a dog. A good tracking dog would be bad enough. That was all he needed on his trail. He had to have the water now, and no question about it.
A street went by him, an alley, and then another street. And presently, now on the very edge of town, he found his way blocked by a high stone wall. As far as Ben could tell in the darkness, it extended for a long way in both directions.
Ben was much better at climbing walls than his bulky shape suggested. The mass of his huge body was very largely muscle, and now his great strength served him well, letting him support himself wedged in an angle of the wall, where enough little chips of stone were missing to give fingers and toes a purchase. Tall as the wall was, he got himself to the top of it and over.
It was almost a four-meter drop into complete darkness on the other side, but fortunately his landing was in soft grass.
He crouched there, listening for news beyond the weary thudding of his own heart, trying to tell whether or not his arrival had been noticed. So far there was no indication that it had. Silence prevailed, except for the usual night insects, and darkness extended almost everywhere. It was broken only by the concentrated glow of a couple of ornate lanterns that shone on latticework and barren vines a modest arrow-shot away.
Getting to his feet, Ben stole as softly as he could toward the lights. He saw now that the vines, leafless with autumn, wreathed and bound a summerhouse of latticework, built larger than a peasant’s cottage. The lanterns glowed inside.
Ben circled close to the arbor, meaning to go around it. He did not see the young lady in almost royal dress who was seated within, against all likelihood in the chill night, until she had raised her own eyes and looked directly at him.
“I see you,” she announced in a firm voice. “Come here and identify yourself.”
WHEN the soldiers sprang upon Zoltan in the streets of Triplicane they kept their weapons sheathed and were obviously determined to take him alive. His arms were pinned, and before he had the chance to draw his own weapons they were taken from him. He struggled fiercely as long as he thought he had the slightest chance of breaking away, but when he found himself in a completely hopeless position, he let his body go limp and saved his strength.