Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

A few moments later Zoltan was fumbling under water to lift the helmet from the lifeless head, and pull the drowned man’s short cape free at the neck and shoulders. The remaining armor, he thought, ought to be enough to weight the body down.

With the helmet now jammed uncomfortably on his own head, and the waterlogged cape trailing behind him, he waited his chance to seize one of the drifting oars. Once he had this minimum of support in hand, he struck out through the cold water for the castle, paddling with his free hand and kicking briskly.

In the water around him, on every side, others were making progress in similar ways. None of the soldiers were now close enough to Zoltan to get a good look at him, or exchange conversation. He did his best to maintain this situation, preserving a certain distance.

The cold was numbing, but his steady efforts gradually brought the castle nearer. Looking up at those stone walls and towers from the very level of the lake, Zoltan saw them grow more and more intimidating. But it was too late now for second thoughts about his plan; he doubted that he would be able to reach the distant mainland from here by swimming, and there was no telling where Draffut might have got to now.

By now he was close enough to the castle docks to get a good look at the soldiers there. But their activities were not that much easier to comprehend. People appeared to be getting into boats and out of them again. Perhaps some large exchange, as of entire companies, between the castle and the town’s garrison had been in progress when Draffut began to disrupt traffic.

Whatever orderly process had been going on had been disrupted, and small wonder, with all the screams and havoc out on the darkened lake, and now with half-drowned, half-frozen refugees swimming in. By now the officers on the dock must have communicated with their superiors, and there would be a discussion going on of what had happened, and whether it was necessary to involve the next higher layer of authority. There were more torches now than ever on the docks, and by their light men were trotting to and fro, into the castle and out of it again.

Zoltan, swimming now within a few meters of the dock-and really sure for the first time that he was going to be able to reach it-took note of what was happening as one man and then another climbed out of the water ahead of him. He rejoiced to see that these arrivals were going almost unnoticed. And now a further distraction for the officers on the dock-out of the darkness behind Zoltan another burst of distant oaths and splashing. Draffut, in timely fashion, had evidently found yet another boat to capsize.

No one on the docks paid more than momentary attention to Zoltan as he, in his turn, scrambled up out of the water, shivering and gasping, to crawl across the stones. No one came forward to help him, any more than they had helped any of the half-dead stragglers who lay wheezing and quaking on the paving blocks around him. Those men who were able to stand up immediately after their swim were being ordered on into the castle through the small connecting gate that now stood open. A sergeant who stood beside the gate was bawling something about a formation in a courtyard. Deeper inside the castle, bugles were sounding, and drums beating; it was evident that at least a partial alert had been declared.

Trying to jam his ill-fitting helmet more securely on his head, Zoltan got quickly to his feet and hurried in through the gate. Here there were fewer torches, and he paused to try to wring some of the water from his cape, meanwhile looking about him. So far, in the semi dark-ness and confusion, no one had noticed that his clothing under the cape was not a uniform.

Water splattered from the cape as he squeezed and twisted its rough fabric. Not far ahead of him, framed by another gateway, Zoltan could see a large courtyard aswarm with military preparations. It was from there that the drums and bugles sounded, and it was there that he particularly did not wish to go.

On his right, a darkened stairway offered the most obvious opportunity to turn aside; Zoltan seized that opportunity, and went trotting lightly and silently up.

On the first dim landing he paused briefly to listen and look back, trying to make sure that no one below had noticed him slipping away. Then, deciding that he had already attained a level comfortably above most of the lights and activity, he started out to explore.

Exploring in darkness, through totally unfamiliar territory, was slow and difficult work at best. Presently, seeking to find an area in which he could at least see where he was going, Zoltan took another stair upward. This ascent was a narrow and winding one, and proved longer than he had expected. When at last he came to a window he was able to see, on the tower levels of the castle that were higher still, more lights and several sentries. These guards were standing at attention or pacing slowly, and appeared calmly unaffected by the turmoil among their comrades at ground level.

Zoltan stepped back from the window, drawing a deep breath. Slowly an unwelcome fact was impressing itself upon him: now that he was here, he had no plan of what to do next. It had been easy enough to say, at a distance: find Prince Mark. But if Mark was here, and still alive, where was he being held?

Doing his best to think constructively upon that point, Zoltan decided that any prisoner so eminent and important would more likely be locked up in one of these towers than in a dungeon. He had of course no real evidence to support that point of view; but now it crossed his mind that Lady Yambu, assuming she had been able to reach the castle and was still here, would probably also be housed in one of these towers. He could not really picture her being thrown into a dungeon whatever happened. And if Zoltan could reach her, she might be able to help him, or at least provide him with some information about Mark.

After another pause, to squeeze more water out of his uniform cape and other clothing, Zoltan began trying to work his way toward the base of one of the towers that he considered promising. Since he was totally unfamiliar with the layout of the rooms and corridors here, and having at times to grope his way through almost total darkness, a number of false starts and detours were inevitable. At one point, alerted by approaching torchlight, he took shelter in a darkened niche as a youth he took to be a messenger went trotting by.

Pausing in yet another darkened passage, trying yet again to press more water from his garments, the shivering Zoltan wondered whether he ought now to dispose of helmet and cape, and try to pass himself off as a servant or some other civilian worker. He had seen a few such, at a distance, since entering the castle. But he supposed that if he did that his wetness would draw more attention. His clothes were not going to dry quickly on this chill, damp night. Until he could manage a total change of clothing, he had better stay as much as possible in darkness.

He moved on slowly, looking for an opportunity to change his garments. Here was a row of doors, and some of them opened willingly enough when he pushed on them-these were small storerooms, but either empty or filled with moldering, useless junk. It seemed that Honan-Fu, or someone in his household, had been unwilling to throw anything away.

It appeared that nothing so convenient as a clothing store was going to present itself to Zoltan’s need. When he had moved past the last of the storerooms, more windows showed him another tower, a good part of it lighted. In one of those high rooms, he thought with a shudder, his archenemy himself might well be quartered. He who called himself the Ancient One might even be peering out of one of those high windows at this moment, while receiving reports from his officers on the disturbances in the lake below. Zoltan shuddered once again, remembering his one contact with that man-if indeed he could be called a man-some two years ago.

Zoltan moved on from the windows. At last, in a disused closet, he found some garments hanging on a row of pegs along a wall. There was a dry, shapeless, almost sizeless smock, which hid most of his own clothing when he put it on. Concealing the helmet and the still-dripping cape behind some junk in a dark corner of the closet, he at last felt ready to try to pass among the enemy.

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