Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

Restlessly Lady Yambu moved back to the window again. Down at the shabby docks, some of which were visible from this vantage point, there was still no sign of the long-awaited riverboat that was to carry her out of the lake and down the Tungri as far as the next cataract. The Maid of Lakes and Rivers, she had heard that the riverboat was called. The Maid was days overdue already, and she supposed more days were likely to pass before it arrived.

If it ever did. She had heard also that traffic on the lower river was at best far from safe.

This was her eleventh day of waiting in this inn. It was good that the earlier years of her life had schooled her thoroughly in patience and self-sufficiency, because-

Making a brisk decision, the lady suddenly scooped up a few small essential items that she did not want to leave unguarded in the room while she was out of it, and moved in two strides to the door. Locking the door behind her, she strode along the short and narrow upstairs hall of the inn, and down a narrow stair. This stair, like most of the rest of the building, was constructed in rustic style, of logs with much of the bark still on them.

As the lady descended, the common dining room, now empty, was to her left, and the small lobby, with three or four pilgrims and locals in it, was to her right.

She had almost reached the foot of the stairs when she saw, through the open front door of the inn, to her right, the figure of a man who moved along the middle of the unpaved street outside, advancing toward the waterfront with a steady, implacable-looking tread. No doubt it was the size of the man, which was remarkable, that first attracted her attention-his form was mountainous, not very tall but very bulky, and not so much fat as shapeless. Lady Yambu could see little of this man but his broad back, but still his appearance jogged her memory. It was not even a memory of someone she had seen before, but of someone she ought to know, ought to be able to recognize….

Moving quickly through the lobby and out the front door, she stood on the log steps of the inn above the muddy and moderately busy street, gazing after him. A second man, much younger and much smaller, was walking with the one who had caught her attention, and already both of them were well past the inn, heading down the sloping street in the direction of the docks. The big man carried a staff, and the smaller wore a sword, which was common enough here as in most towns. Both were dressed in rough, plain clothing.

The lady, on the verge of running after the two, but not choosing to brave the mud and the loss of dignity involved, cast her eyes about. Then with a quick gesture she beckoned an alert-looking urchin who was loitering nearby, and gave him a trifling coin and a short verbal message. In a moment his small figure was speeding after the two men.

“Alas,” the lady was saying to the huge man a quarter of an hour later, “I doubt that there is any messenger, winged or otherwise, to be found in this village who could reach Tasavalta sooner than you could yourself.”

She was back in her room at the inn, sitting on one end of the small couch that also served as a bed, while the two men she had invited in from the street stood leaning against the outer wall, one on each side of the window. They had now been in the lady’s company long enough to tell her their story about the kidnapping of Prince Mark at dawn, only a few hours ago. She had heard them with considerable interest; the Prince of Tasavalta had been a person of some importance in her old life.

The lady asked her informants now: “And he still had Shieldbreaker with him when he was taken?”

The smaller, younger man nodded. He was called Zoltan, and had been a total stranger to Yambu until today. He said: “But my uncle did not draw it. As you must know, lady, that would have been a mistake in a fight against unarmed attackers-doubtless they knew he was carrying a Sword, and which one of the Twelve it was. And they knew the only way to fight against it. Or they would not have attacked him without weapons of their own in hand, or at least at their belts.”

“So Shieldbreaker has presumably gone to the master of those men now, whoever he may be. And he commands a griffin. That is not good. I have never even seen a griffin,” said the lady, and sighed, reminding herself that the time was long past when she had to concern herself with such things as the balance of power. “And of course now you are in a desperate hurry to send word to Tasavalta, and get help from Princess Kristin and the others, or at least let them know what has happened. But I have no messenger to lend you.”

In response, the huge man, Ben of Purkinje, looked pointedly at the lady’s pet winged dragon, which was still perched on the washstand.

Yambu nodded. “Yes, that creature could serve as a messenger, of sorts. But I fear my pet could not be made to carry any word back to Tasavalta for you. Still I would like to do something to help Prince Mark, provided he is not, as you fear, already beyond help. Though we were enemies, I suppose he is now as close to being my friend as anyone who walks the face of the earth today.” She paused. “And you, Ben of Purkinje, though I think we have never seen each other before today-you have been much in my mind for the past several months.”

That surprised the big man, distracting him if only briefly from his deep concern over his Prince. “Me? Why me?”

“Because between us, you and me, there is a connection of a sort-I mean apart from our having been enemies across the battlefield. You knew my daughter.”

“Ah,” said Ben, distracted even more, against his will. “Yes. I knew Ariane.”

“That is her name. I have no other daughter. And you were with her, eleven years ago or thereabouts, in the vaults of the Blue Temple.”

The impression made by her words on Ben was deepening. Eventually he said in a dull voice: “She died there, in my arms.” And Zoltan, so young he was, perhaps not even fully grown as yet, looked at the older man with sympathetic wonder.

Yambu said: “And you had been with Ariane for a long time before that.”

Ben gazed back at her in silence. His face was grim, but beyond that hard to read.

She who had once been the Silver Queen went on: “As you know, I have been living for years in a White

Temple, withdrawn from the world. Almost, I have ceased to have either friends or enemies at all. Now I am only an old woman, making my way out into the world again to try to wring some answers from it. I am sure you can provide me with some of the answers that I want-a portion of the truth about my daughter. In return I will be willing to do whatever I can for you, and for your Prince. Perhaps there will be nothing I can do; but I am still not entirely without resources.”

For a little time Ben prolonged his thoughtful silence. Then he said: “As I suppose you know, lady, Ariane suffered a head wound when we were fighting down there in the Blue Temple’s vaults. For a time after she received the injury-for many minutes, perhaps an hour-she was able to speak and move about. Then suddenly she collapsed. I was standing beside her, and I caught her as she fell. A few minutes later she was dead.”

“The two of you were lovers?”

The huge man turned away to look out of the window momentarily, and then turned back. His ugly face was full of pain. “We had known each other for a matter of a few days-no more. From the day that Mark and I and the others broke into a Red Temple and brought her out, until the day she died in that damned hole.”

“I want to know,” said Yambu, royally persistent, “whether Ariane was still a virgin when she died.”

“How can that matter now?”

“And I want to know much more than that.” The silver-haired woman was still capable of ignoring questions in the manner of a queen. “I would like you to tell me everything, any detail you can remember, about those days the two of you spent together. Whether the truth is harsh or tender, I would know it. Lately the fate of my only child has come to be of tremendous importance to me.”

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