His captors, working with quiet efficiency, bound him firmly, while at the same time they took care to cause no serious injury. They had nothing to say to him beyond a few passing comments on his ancestry, but Zoltan gathered from the few words they spoke among themselves that they considered him a catch of some importance.
Bound hand and foot, and aching from the blows he had received during the struggle, he was carried through the streets and conveyed quickly to the docks. There a command post had been set up, and he heard a couple of officers exulting over his capture before one of them ordered him placed immediately in a small boat. From what Zoltan could hear of the officers’ conversation it was certain that they knew he was Prince Mark’s nephew.
The only consolation Zoltan could find was that Ben was not in the boat with him, and that the soldiers, from what he could overhear, were still pressing an urgent search for someone.
Whatever might have happened to Ben, it now appeared that he, Zoltan, was going to get to the island after all.
As soon as he had been tossed into the boat, Zoltan wriggled and turned until he was lying on his back near the prow, his head and shoulders sufficiently elevated to let him see out over the gunwales. He was facing the backs of six soldiers, who now bent to their oars, and the sergeant on the rear seat was facing Zoltan along the length of the boat.
At a word from the sergeant the backs of the rowers bent in unison, and oars squeaked in their locks. The lights of the docks and the town began to move away. Staring out over the darkening face of the lake, marked here and there by a few lonely sparks of fires upon its distant shores, Zoltan pondered a temporarily attractive scheme of trying to roll himself out of the craft once it was well out into deep water. If he could manage to drown himself, tied up as he was, he would at least have succeeded in avoiding interrogation.
The moon was coming up now, its light beginning to make things ghostly.
For two thirds of the distance to the castle, the boat made uneventful progress, the sergeant only now and then growling a command, the men rowing steadily and in near silence.
But at that point in the journey, just as the craft was about to pass between two of the smaller islands, Zoltan observed something strange. It was as if a piece of one of those islets, which was some forty meters or so distant, had detached itself from the main body-detached itself, and was now drifting silently through the gloom toward the boat. A tiny, moving islet, whitish in the darkness and the peculiar moonlight. His imagination suggested something out of a story of the far northern seas, a drifting floe of ice, which might perhaps be big enough to let a desperate man use it for a raft. Zoltan watched it as if hypnotized…
Because the appearance of the thing gradually convinced him that it was neither a drifting island nor a chunk of ice. It possessed too much mobility, and it changed shape. It was alive.
Zoltan had once seen a living dragon that was bigger than this mysterious object. But this was no dragon, though it had eyes. Eyes the size of plates, reflecting impossible colors from the night. And fur, a pale silvery mat that became visible for what it was, roaring a cascade of water back into the lake as the thing began to rise out of the shallowing water with the nearness of its approach.
For long seconds now every soldier in the boat had been aware of this bizarre apparition. One after another the men had ceased to row; and now, as if a signal had been given, they all started shouting at the same moment.
Their shouts had no effect. The furry mass was wet and dully glistening, and the moonlight seemed to play strange tricks of light within its surface as it rose higher and higher, the top of it now three meters above the lake. Atop the silvery form Zoltan could now distinguish an almost human head, manlike but gigantically magnified, supported upon almost human shoulders.
And now there were two arms. Limbs quite unbelievable in size, but there they were. And now one of those arms was reaching with its great hand for the boat.
Long moments had passed since the soldiers had ceased to row. Uttering cries and oaths, they had begun to scramble for their weapons. Now one of them, the sergeant, swung with an oar against that reaching hand; the wooden blow landed on a knuckle, with a sound of great solidity, and had not the least observable effect.
The huge, five-fingered hand was thickly covered with the same strange fur as the rest of the creature’s body. The hand was big enough to enfold a man’s whole body in its grasp, bigger probably, but still it was very human in its shape. And now it had clamped a hard grip on the nearest gunwale, and Zoltan could hear the planks of the boat’s side grind and groan and crunch together.
The boat was tipping now, the side held by the great hand rising, about to spill its contents into the lake on the side away from the silver monster.
By now most of the soldiers had their swords in hand. But they were too late to use them-if indeed such puny weapons could have done them any good. Everyone aboard the boat, Zoltan included, shouted aloud as it went over.
Zoltan had just time to close his mouth before the splash and grip of icy water claimed him. His bound feet touched bottom, less than two meters down, and he twisted his body in the water in an effort to stand erect, or at least float with his head up, so he could breathe. But he need not have made the effort. A hand as big as the one that had tipped the boat closed gently around his body, and he was lifted from the lake almost before its chill had had time to penetrate his clothing. He was able to catch one glimpse of the crew of military rowers, all floundering to swim or stand or cling to their capsized boat, the men in neck-deep water just starting to get their feet under them, before he was borne away.
He was being carried by the being who had overturned the boat, and who was now wading away from it through water no deeper than his thighs, though already quite deep enough to drown a man. The giant’s two columnar legs sent up their roaring wakes in alternation, making speed away from boat and islands into water that was deeper still; the bottom dropped off sharply here.
Meanwhile, one of the giant’s hands still cradled Zoltan, while the fingers of the other plucked with surprising delicacy at the cords that bound him. One after another, like withes of grass, those strings popped loose.
In the next moment Zoltan, his arms and legs now free, had been lifted up to ride like a child sitting on the giant’s furry shoulders, astride his neck. Meanwhile his savior, almost chest-deep in the lake now and rapidly getting deeper, continued to make impressive speed away from the shouted outrage of the soldiers surrounding their tipped boat.
By using both hands to cling to silvery fur, Zoltan managed to keep his seat. He delayed trying to speak; the noise made by the great body beneath him in its splashing passage would have drowned out any merely human shout. But presently the splashing quieted almost completely as the giant began to swim. Zoltan’s small additional weight upon his neck apparently made little difference to him in this effort.
At last, in the lee of another of the smaller islands, Zoltan was set down upon a sandy shore. The tipped boat was hundreds of meters distant now, and the castle even farther away, beyond the boat.
As soon as he had solid land under his feet again, the young man made a low bow to his rescuer. He said: “My lifelong gratitude, Lord Draffut.”
“You know me, then.” The giant still stood erect, surveying more distant events from his six-meter height; the voice from that great throat was manlike, except that it was deep as any dragon’s roar. Then he looked down. “But I do not recognize you.”
“We have not met before, my lord. I am Zoltan, nephew of Prince Mark of Tasavalta.”
“Ah.” Draffut now squatted in the shallows, bringing his head down closer to the level of the man’s. “And where is the Prince himself tonight?”
Zoltan turned briefly and raised a hand toward the torch-sparked castle and its reflection in the lake. “In there, somewhere, I am afraid. If he is still alive.”