Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

Boldly the young lady started walking straight toward the central tower, the one she had indicated earlier. Ben followed, out of the areaway and into a relatively well-lighted court. But before he had moved more than a score of paces, there was an outcry behind him.

What seemed like a whole company of soldiers were running after them; the uniforms seemed to come pouring out of every passageway and crevice in the stones. There was no way to avoid them. Before Ben could quite decide that the time had come to fight to the death, the odds were hopeless, and he and the lady were both closely surrounded.

“My lady,” an officer shouted, “you were told to wait!” There was no great courtesy in his tone.

Lady Ninazu flared back with angry words, which seemed to make little impression on the officer. Ben had just resigned himself to the probable necessity of making a hopeless fight after all when a shout from somewhere in the middle distance made him wait again. “What- ho? What have you there?” The voice, unfamiliar to Ben, was harsh and masculine.

Ben, turning slowly and carefully, beheld a tall, ghastly, half-reptilian figure. From the fervent descriptions often given him by Zoltan, he had no difficulty in recognizing one who had to be the Ancient One himself.

The call had interrupted Lady Ninazu’s heartfelt and outraged protests; she too had fallen silent for the moment. Like Ben she had turned to look across the courtyard to where the tall, malignant figure stood waving at their captors.

A moment later Ben, experiencing a sensation of dislocation, realized that the small, pale face looking toward him over one of the figure’s shoulders was that of Lady Yambu. And that the face of Zoltan, looking not at all like that of a defeated victim, was peering at him past the other. Even at the distance Ben thought that Zoltan looked as if he would have liked to wink but did not quite dare.

Ben let out his breath, making a sound somewhere between a chuckle and a sob.

The guards who had surrounded Lady Ninazu and himself were saluting the monster across the courtyard, and they were not slow or slovenly about it. In response to gestures and shouted orders from that commanding figure, they put up their weapons and withdrew.

Ben, moving on shaky legs, led the way across the courtyard. Lady Ninazu, for all the demands that she had made to be taken to the new master of this castle, was not so eager now, and hung back slightly. A moment later Ben and the two ladies, along with Zoltan and whoever had the Sword, were shut inside the little grotto like enclosure surrounding the deep, black pool.

When at last Arnfinn, Zoltan, and Lady Yambu were inside the grotto, Zoltan pulled the gate closed after them again. Then he and Arnfinn looked around them uncertainly. It was a narrow place, open to the sky but closely confined between high walls into which fantastic niches and decorations had been carved and built out of the dark stone. The grotto was only a small place, but still the single torch, in the hand of the Sword-bearer, seemed inadequate to light it.

Almost all of the ground space was taken up by the surface of the black, deep-looking pool, with only a rim of pavement around its edge. Ben looked in puzzlement at the surrounding walls, and the two ropes that went down into the still water. On the far side of the pool, a dim mouth blocked by heavy metal bars was open in the stone, the beginning of a watery tunnel that led out of the pool to some unknown destination.

But Lady Yambu paid no attention to this setting. She went directly to the edge of the well, where the two secured ropes went down into cold, dark, quiet water. She knelt down there, close by the great iron ring to which the ropes were fastened, and rested her fingers on the ropes, one hand to each.

Closing her eyes, she said: “The two of them are still alive down there-I have just enough of the art myself to be able to feel that. Still alive now, but I fear that hauling them back up into the air is likely to kill them.”

“The Prince is down there? Under water?” Zoltan was outraged.

“Down there?” echoed Ben.

The lady ignored the mild outburst. “Before we haul them up, we should have a counter spell prepared, and someone with skill enough to make it work.”

As if involuntarily, she and Zoltan both raised their eyes to the impressive image of the great wizard that stood beside them.

During the last few minutes Arnfinn had been making a firm resolution to strive for suavity and dignity befitting a master magician in all he said. But he forgot his resolution now. “I haven’t got,” he protested, “magic enough to chase a flea.”

Meanwhile Lady Ninazu had been very quiet, almost ignoring the others. She had backed up slowly, moving from the others, and away from the pool as far as the confined space would allow, until her back was leaning against one of the enclosing walls. She had been staring down at the black water and its secrets as if she could guess what those secrets were, and found them frightening.

Now, suddenly, in a tight voice she announced: “Kunderu is not down there. I don’t see how he can be.”

“If you are the daughter of Honan-Fu,” the older lady told her, “then your father is down there. Along with someone you do not know.”

The girl appeared to find that relatively acceptable, but still it frightened her. “My father,” she repeated thoughtfully.

“So I have been told. Quickly, are you enchantress enough to save these men’s lives if we pull them up at once?”

Ninazu nodded abstractedly. “I am a very good enchantress. I could do more than that.”

“That will be sufficient for the moment,” said Yambu in her queen’s voice, and gave a signal. Swiftly Ben and Zoltan stooped over the ropes. Seizing one at random, they began to haul.

As they were working, Lady Yambu straightened up and whispered to the one who had the Sword. He nodded, and in a moment had opened the gate again and was calling out to the soldiers in the court, telling them to bring plenty of food and hot drink, blankets and dry clothing for two men.

Within moments Ben and Zoltan had pulled a human figure out of the water. Lying on the stone pavement with steam forming in the air around it, it appeared to be little more than a whitish blob of ice. The clothing and all the details of its shape were so rimed in pale needles and granules as to render the figure quite unrecognizable beyond the fact of its humanity. It was quite large enough to be the Prince. Only an occasional twitching of the limbs, and a slight, fitful turning back and forth of that ice-encrusted head showed that any life at all remained.

Lady Ninazu, meanwhile, remained drawn back as far as possible from the rescue operation. She had fallen silent again, and the fear she had displayed before was now intensified, and focused on the frozen man.

Suddenly she raised her head, with a motion so sharp and sudden that others turned to look in the same direction. There was only the square darkness of the central tower rising against the stars, punctuated at a few points with the narrow sparks of lighted windows.

“He’s not down here,” she announced positively. “He’s up there.” And she raised an arm and pointed with assurance.

“Are you going to help these men?” Yambu demanded in a threatening voice. “You must do it now.”

The younger lady might not have heard. She continued staring at the tower.

Yambu went to her and shook her. When that rough treatment had no apparent effect, she slapped Ninazu in the face. The swing was more like a man’s blow than a woman’s, and it brought forth a little shriek of sheer astonishment.

The slap took Arnfinn by surprise. He shouted at Lady Yambu and took a step toward her. But she ignored him and did not shift her attention from Ninazu.

The older woman pointed with a bony finger to the form stretched on the pavement. “Help this man!” she barked.

And Ninazu, yielding to the other’s will, moved closer to the icy figure. Murmuring softly, she began to work a spell.

With a sudden gasp the man on the pavement began to breathe again. The sound of his breathing, hoarse and deep, came as a new presence within these dark stone walls.

Meanwhile the hands of others had been gently picking and brushing the frost away from the Prince’s gray-blue face. Already much of the frost was falling and melting away from his body.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred