“Ah. And was it he who sent the little flying dragon to find me, bearing the only message that it could, that my help was needed?”
“Lady Yambu did that,” said Zoltan, feeling suddenly guilty for his past suspicions. Then he hesitated. “Did she know, when she sent the dragon, that it would bring you?”
“Doubtless she at least hoped that it would. Fortunately I was already traveling this way when the message reached me, on my way to Tasavalta from the far south. I bear grim news, and the Prince is one of the people that I meant to see-but that can wait. How strongly is the castle defended?”
“I have heard an eyewitness account of the arrival of about two hundred troops.” And Zoltan explained what little he and Ben had been able to learn on the subject.
Draffut was just about to respond to this information when he suddenly raised his head, gazing up into the night sky. Zoltan, looking up also, saw that one of the small flying scouts from the castle had discovered them in the moonlight and was circling overhead.
As soon as the flyer began to clamor its discovery, Draffut emitted a startlingly shrill cry from his own huge throat. It sounded like the flyer’s own primitive form of speech, and it had an immediate effect.
Draffut had called the creature, and it came spiraling down to him and he caught it gently as it came down, much as a man whose hands were quick enough might have snatched a small bird on the wing.
Then for several minutes the Beastlord held conversation with the little flyer, while it remained perched on one of his fingers. Draffut managed to match the sounds of its voice so perfectly that Zoltan, looking on in awe, was often unable to tell which shrill tone proceeded from which throat.
Then suddenly the conversation was over, and Draffut tossed the flyer lightly back into the air. The small winged thing silently flew up and away, headed now for the dark shoreline in the opposite direction from the castle.
“Now it will no longer serve our enemies,” said Draffut. He went on to explain that since his arrival in the vicinity of the lake he had already persuaded a number of nonhuman creatures to abandon their service to the new ruler of Honan-Fu’s domain. He had convinced them that they would be better off to desert that unnatural cause, allied with demons as it was, and adopt a way of life more in keeping with their own true natures.
Then he shook his huge head, as if at some unpleasant memory. “I regret to say that some of them would not listen to me.”
“What happened then?”
“I wrung their necks-that, you understand, is an option I do not have with humans who are determined to persist in evil. My own nature forbids that I should harm any human.”
Zoltan looked back toward the tipped boat. Other craft, with torches, had come from the castle and were now approaching the scene of the disaster to find out what had happened and rescue those still in the water.
Draffut was smiling. “I wanted to ask questions of a soldier. Or better yet, ask them of the soldiers’ prisoner, once I saw that they had such a person in their boat. But before I tipped the boat I had first to make sure that the water there was shallow enough for the men aboard to stand in. Some of them might have been poor swimmers.”
The young man shook his head impatiently. “I was beginning to hope that you could even force your way into the castle, and its dungeons. My uncle Mark is there.”
Draffut shook his head in turn. He drew back his lips in what might have been a smile, displaying carnivorous-looking fangs that would have served a dragon. “If there are human defenders on the walls, as I am sure there must be, I cannot attack them. Nor could I do much damage to the demons who would be called up to help those men, though in the case of demons it would not be for want of trying.”
“Ben and I are both determined to get into the castle.” Zoltan thought of trying to explain his own reason. But then he just left it at that. He gestured toward the town. “I don’t know if Ben’s still living either.”
The Lord of Beasts gazed at him in silence for a moment. Then Draffut said: “I can probably create enough of a distraction for you to get into that castle, if that is what you really want. But before you do, you ought to know what kind of an enemy you are going to face there.”
“I’m sure he’s formidable. And whatever he is, he now also has Shieldbreaker in his hand-but still I must go.”
“I understand that men are sometimes willing to go to almost certain death, and that Ben of Purkinje would feel so. The Prince has saved his life more than once.”
“And my uncle has saved mine also.”
“Very well. But even if the one who rules in the castle now did not have Shieldbreaker-you should know something of his nature before you go to face him.”
“Is he called the Ancient One? If so, I have seen him once before.” And Zoltan shivered. The night was wearing on and growing colder.
“That is the name by which he is called now,” said Draffut quietly. He drew a deep breath into the cavern of his chest and let it out again. “Thousands of years ago, when Ardneh was alive upon the earth, this same man walked the earth as a servant of the evil emperor John Ominor. He was named Wood, then-that at least was his public name-and his body was more fully human then than it is now. You said that you have seen him?”
“Yes. About two years ago.” And Zoltan shivered again.
“Then there is much that I need not try to explain. In olden times his mind and soul were more fully human too, though nonetheless evil, I suppose. For about two years now he has been here, active in our world. How he can have survived until now I do not know, except that he must have made a pact with some unknown evil that allowed him to traverse the ages swiftly, or lie dormant through them. And the pact has changed him for the worse…. I was certain that Orcus, the grandfather of all demons, had slain him, even before Ardneh died.”
All this was beside the point as far as Zoltan could see. He quickly brought the discussion back to present problems.
“Lord Draffut, what can you do to help Prince Mark? And our companion, Ben of Purkinje. It would be a great help to me to know whether he’s still alive or not.”
“I am going to do what I can to help the Prince. First we must be absolutely sure that you are still determined to get into the castle where he is.”
“I am determined,” said Zoltan.
And he thought that with those words he had spoken his own doom.
THE young lady who confronted Ben under the glowing lanterns of the autumnal summerhouse was of slender build and considerable beauty. The soft appearance of her hands, the length of her well-cared-for fingernails, the royal elegance of her clothing, all indicated that she had led a sheltered and wealthy life. But despite the sophistication of her manner and her clothing, Ben judged that she was really no older than Zoltan.
There was a certain natural alarm in her eyes -along with other things less easy to read-as she gazed at this giant and uncouth intruder. But there was less alarm than Ben would have expected; certainly there appeared to be very little chance that this particular lady was going to scream or run away in panic.
Still Ben moved very slowly, doing his best not to alarm her any further. Shuffling a step or two closer to the pavilion, nodding and smiling subserviently as he moved, he allowed her to see him plainly in the lantern light.
He topped the performance with a little touch of his forelock. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, I don’t mean any harm, I’m sure. They were after me with dogs and such out there-don’t know why, I’m sure.” And he went through the humble little routine of bowing and nodding and smiling again.
The girl, still seated but now holding herself very erect, was swiftly becoming even more judgmental and less alarmed. “Who are you?” she demanded. The question was deeply suspicious, and she was looking down at him like a magistrate from the slight elevation of her chair on the raised floor of the arbor.
“Name’s Maxim, ma’am.” Inspiration had come seemingly from nowhere. Some of the best ideas, Ben had noticed, arrived in such a way. “They call me Maxim the Strong. I’m with the show, ma’am. Magnificent Show of Ensor. We’ll be coming to Triplicane again soon for a performance, and they just sent me on ahead. To put up a few posters, like, ma’arn, and just kind of look things over in the town.”