As the three were crossing one of the wider open spaces, there came a faint sound from high above. Looking up in the direction of the tallest tower, Zoltan saw the griffin, small with height, and with the figure of a man astride its back. It went leaping out of the aerie into the night sky. The creature’s wings worked powerfully, and in a moment it and its rider were out of sight among the stars.
Some of the onlookers in the courtyard dropped their gaze from the starry sky to Arnfinn, then looked back up into the night again, as if they could not believe their eyes. But if their suspicions were aroused, they were not expressed, at least not within hearing of their great lord who apparently stood before them.
Lady Yambu was again holding Arnfinn by the arm, as any lady might hold that of her escort. This allowed her to exert a slight pressure by which she guided him in the direction she wished to go. In this way they crossed the central courtyard with its grim high altar, charred and empty now, and reached a small closed gate. Here, too, guards stepped aside. Arnfinn himself pushed the gate open.
When some of the guards would have followed the three into the dark, grotto like space behind the gate, Lady Yambu whispered in the ear of her lordly escort. And at his gesture the intruding men fell back, one of them first handing him a torch.
And now at the last moment before they passed into the darkness beyond the gate there was another delay. An officer came hurrying across the wide courtyard, approached Arnfinn, and whispered to him so quietly that not even Lady Yambu could hear. The message was that one who claimed to be Lady Ninazu had reached the island in a small boat and insisted on seeing the lord of the castle.
Arnfinn’s heart leaped in his chest. He was ready to order that he be taken to Ninazu at once, or she be brought to him. But her presence would add another complication to the rescue of Kunderu, and besides he was still ashamed to face her. His duty lay here, trying to free her brother as rapidly as possible.
“Have her wait,” he replied to the officer, who murmured his acknowledgment of the order and faded away.
But still the delays were not over. There was a fresh outcry on the far side of the court.
Lady Ninazu, on finding herself locked into the dank waiting room, had wasted no time in futile shouts and protests. Instead, she gave up rattling at the door after only a couple of ineffective shakes, turned to Ben, pointed dramatically at the lock, and ordered: “Break it open!”
Ben liked the locked door much less than she did, but he had a tactical suggestion. “‘Your pardon, my lady, but there’s likely to be someone in the corridor outside who would take notice if we did that. It might be wiser to take a look at the windows first.” Their place of detention was on the ground floor, and a quick glance through the windows showed a darkened areaway outside that offered some prospect of escape.
The lady thought for a moment, then nodded her agreement. Ben found that the inward shutters opened easily. Then to his disappointment, but hardly to his surprise, he discovered an iron grillwork on the outside of the windows that effectively prevented any passage. The bars looked no more than ornamental, not really the kind of barriers you would find in a dungeon, but they were discouragingly thick and his first trial of barehanded strength against them achieved nothing.
There were voices in the corridor outside the door; that way still did not look attractive. Ben concentrated his attention on one of the windows while the lady looked on with approval. She would have liked, Ben was sure, to urge him to greater efforts, but she evidently realized that nagging at him now was only likely to slow things down, and with a major effort was managing to restrain herself.
As Ben cast about for something to serve him as a wrecking bar, his eyes fell on a wooden bench that made up a large part of the plain furnishings of the room. A brace that ran along the bench’s back was long and stout enough to serve as an effective lever, he thought. Ben picked up the bench and with a few swift movements knocked off its ends and legs against the stone wall. A moment after that he had violently separated the back and seat from the component that he wanted. The whole process had made only a moderate amount of noise.
Now Ben had his sizable chunk of timber, long as a man’s body and thick as his arm. With this inserted between the bars, Ben was able to pry at them and start them moving. But he was able to bend the ironwork only a small distance before his timber lever was balked by coming against the heavy masonry at the side of the window.
But now the tenure of the metalwork in its sockets had been much weakened. Ben dropped the lever. Taking his time, he tried out several grips, getting his hands into the most effective positions that he could find. Then he exerted all the strength that he could summon up.
He could feel the veins in his forehead standing out, and what might have been the tearing of muscle fibers in his quivering arms.
Gasping, he let go and slumped against the stonework. The bars were not going to yield. Not yet, anyway. He had to rest for a few moments.
While he was resting, panting and leaning against the wall, the lady came closer, bright-eyed, to watch him. But still, thankfully, she had no advice to offer or orders to declare.
He looked at her, and nodded his appreciation for her noninterference. Then he bent to his task again.
It just came down to this. That he was going to have to bend these bars. He could not afford to remain locked up here, helpless, until someone came along who recognized him.
With a small explosion, one end of one bar came free of its mortared socket in the wall. The break sent small fragments of stone and brick spraying almost silently out into the night.
Once more Ben rested, gasping. A gap had been created now, but it was probably not wide enough for even a slender lady to slide through. Probably, he thought, two more bars were going to have to go.
Still, he could use only his bare hands. But now he could shift his grip and obtain a great advantage in leverage. In only a moment the next bar had assumed a U-shape, looking as if it might now fit the hoof of some giant riding-beast.
Again he paused, just long enough for a few gasping breaths. His hands were callused from a lifetime of hard use, and when he looked at them he saw that the skin was still intact. Good. He was going to need all his blood and energy.
The lady, her patience wearing out, began to nag at Ben in a whisper, sounding like the angry child she was. If only, she was saying, she could get to speak to the Ancient One himself, all would be well. She would have these incompetent officers who had delayed her boiled in oil. And then, when at last she reached her brother and made sure of his release, she would have Ben rewarded-
Ben ceased to pay attention. He forbore to ask her just why this Ancient One, if he was truly her great friend as she claimed, still insisted on keeping her brother locked up. Instead he gently hoisted the lady through the window, then forced his own great shoulders out. He had to bend the second bar yet a little more before he was quite able to fit through. Then he and Lady Ninazu were standing side by side on the dark pavement, with nothing between them and the stars.
Ben whispered: “Now, where are the prisoners kept? Have you any idea, ma’am?”
She raised her eyes. “My brother will be found high in that central tower. If we were on the other side of it I could point out to you the very windows of his room. But-before we go to him, I think I ought to talk to the Ancient Master.” She paused, looking around her uncertainly.
“Are you sure that would be a good idea, my lady?”
“Of course it would. Who are you to question my decisions on such a matter?”
“I am no one, my lady.” He wondered if the time would come when it would be good policy to strangle her.
“Of course you are not.” She looked round her and appeared to get her bearings. There were several exits from the areaway in which they stood. Ben prepared to follow, at the most cautious distance she would tolerate. At the earliest opportunity he meant to separate himself from her and start in earnest to look for Mark-or try to make contact with Lady Yambu, if the opportunity offered. He felt reasonably confident that she was here somewhere.