Already the audience too was more or less in place. It was bigger than Ben had expected, certainly over a hundred people. Most of them were soldiers, with servants from the manor and a random scattering of other civilians attracted by the assembly. There were of course no seats, and the soldiers in particular were not settled in to watch. Whatever they had originally come here for, they were only pausing as their officers had paused, to see what might be interesting about this motley group of fools who had come to put on a show.
It was not the kind of audience Ben would have chosen, but he had already decided to obey orders. “What am I supposed to do?” he demanded loudly of anyone who would listen to him. He could see no weights, no strongman paraphernalia anywhere. And even as he spoke, the clown passed right by him, apparently ignoring his question completely. No one else paid him any particular attention.
Next, the clown, having reached the approximate center of the open field, assumed the role of ringmaster. He made a short speech, punctuated by exaggerated bows and obeisances, which earned him a faint titter of laughter from the civilians in the crowd-only a few hoots and muttered curses from the soldiers. Giving a very good imitation of terror, he scampered back behind one of the wagons.
A moment later, to the music of simple drum and flute, the two dancing girls came prancing out from behind the other wagon. It was a simple dance, more comic than erotic. But the assembled soldiers greeted it with a roar of serious lust.
The girls had barely reached the center of the ring when the first of the soldiers rushed from the sidelines to grab at them. One performer was whirled around in a helpless parody of a dance; the other, pawed by a dozen hands, already had part of her costume torn off.
The two victims were able to escape only because fighting broke out almost immediately among the soldiers. As an officer shouted into the confusion, the dancers made good a quick retreat, their faces pale, holding their ripped costumes about them as they ran.
Naturally the dancers were frightened. No, thought Ben as they passed him, it would be more accurate to say that they looked as if they had been frightened, even terrified, a moment ago. But now already they felt safe. They had managed to escape from the small arena, and with monumental trust they were ready to leave their problems in the hands of the clown.
Ben had already moved a step forward. But against a hundred soldiers his interference on the dancers’ behalf would have been hopeless; and now it appeared that it might not be necessary.
The clown, enacting a parody of bold defiance, had sprung forward from somewhere to confront the armed mass of the soldiers.
The masked figure had drawn from somewhere a rusty, toy-sized sword, and he waved this weapon wildly as in a thin, hopeless, angry voice he challenged the whole garrison of the town to come against him.
The soldiers laughed. At the beginning it was almost a good-humored sound.
One of them, not bothering to draw a weapon, came at the clown with fist uplifted, ready to knock this preposterous Obstacle out of his way with one half-drunken swing. But he couldn’t do it, couldn’t hold himself together long enough.
Helpless with laughter, the soldier staggered around the clown, who continued to challenge him, and halfway across the ring toward the waiting girls. But before he reached them he had to give up and sit down, abandoning himself completely to hilarity.
The laughter had spread quickly through the military audience, and it was growing steadily louder, though the clown was doing nothing to enlarge his simple routine. The officers, their next reaction anger, the instinct to maintain discipline, were soon as badly infected as the men.
Men and officers alike, they roared, they bellowed, they guffawed. They shrieked and screamed and howled. The noise they made was rising to an unnatural level. Officers abandoned their dignity entirely. Choking helplessly on their own mirth, they rolled on the ground.
The lady of the manor had come to stand beside Ben, watching, waiting.
Turning, looking until he caught Ben’s eye, the clown made a sign, a gentle push as of dismissal. It was an expressive gesture, and Ben knew it meant that he and Lady Ninazu were now free to be on their way.
ONCE again Draffut hoisted Zoltan to his shoulders. Then, swimming and wading, the giant carried the young man with him through the lake, back in the direction of the castle.
When they reached the area of shallower water that surrounded some of the smaller islands, the Beastlord enjoined silence, then set his passenger down again on a dark beach. Some of the victims of Draffut’s attack had evidently reached a different island, where they were waiting in hope of rescue; their mournful voices carried through the night.
Draffut crouched beside Zoltan and together they awaited the approach of the next boat.
“What if there’s no more traffic on the lake tonight?” Zoltan whispered.
“I think there will be. Even before I tipped that boat, something was stirring the soldiers to activity, in the castle and in the town.”
Looking in the direction of the castle on its island, Zoltan found something dreamlike in the appearance of the structure, with the multitude of tiny flames that were trying to light it all reflected in the water. Even more lights had appeared in the stronghold in the few minutes since he had taken his last deliberate look at it. And the docks at the foot of those high walls displayed increased activity. Miniature human figures could be seen swarming over them, though at the distance it was impossible to see just what they were about.
Draffut, who had been peering in the other direction, toward the town, now hissed softly, signaling for renewed silence. Crouching lower, the Beastlord whispered: “Another boatload of soldiers is coming in our direction-no, I think there are two boats this time.” Draffut’s whisper was a peculiar sound, like the rushing of an almost silent breeze across the night.
Very soon Zoltan, peering over the low, dry elevation of the barren islet, was also able to hear the oars. And shortly after that he believed he could tell that there were at least two boats approaching.
Tugging childlike at the half-luminous fur of the crouching giant beside him, he whispered very softly: “Ben might be on one of those.”
The Beastlord nodded his great head once. “When we approach these boats, I’ll signal with a roar if I see that they carry no prisoners. Then you can go on to the castle, as you are determined to do, if fortune grants you the chance. But if I am silent, then there are prisoners, or at least one, and you should probably wait to confer with them first.”
Presently Zoltan was able to see the dark shapes of the slow-moving boats intermittently silhouetted against the twinkling lights of the distant town.
Moving his lips closer to Zoltan’s ear, Draffut whispered a last question: “Are you a good swimmer? Good enough to reach the castle from here, in water as cold as this?”
“Then do what you must do. And the help of all true gods go with you.”
With that Draffut slid away, moving in eerie silence, and, almost without causing a ripple, submerged himself to his neck. In this position he began to swim very quietly toward the two approaching boats. Zoltan, still fully clothed, moved after him.
In only a few moments the Lord of Beasts had reached the boats, and once more the night erupted in clamor and confusion. Once more the giant reared his full height out of the water, and closed his grip upon a wooden gunwale. And in rapid succession these craft too were tipped and emptied of their screaming rowers. Again the men in the boats had scrambled to grab up their weapons and use them against this incredible apparition-only to find themselves in the water, struggling just to breathe and find their footing, before they could even attempt to fight.
Draffut was roaring now, giving the signal agreed upon that there were no prisoners here for him to rescue; and Zoltan reacted accordingly. He, unlike Draffut, was under no compulsion to avoid harming the enemy. Swimming methodically into the tumult of bobbing heads and thrashing limbs, Zoltan picked out his target quickly. Close ahead of him the faint glint of moonlight on partial armor showed him a foe who was ill-equipped for watery combat.
Approaching this man from behind, Zoltan struck silently, taking his victim around the neck and thrusting him under the surface. The bubbles of the man’s last breath came up unnoticed by any of his struggling comrades.