After that first deep breath, Mark’s body was racked with convulsive shivering. But his breathing continued, gradually steadying into an almost normal rhythm.
And now Zoltan and Ben were drawing the second body up out of the dark water.
And again Ninazu was retreating, shrinking back against the stones of the confining wall. She murmured: “That can’t be him, I tell you. He’s up in the tower.”
Once more Yambu had to bully her. “As I have told you, this man is your father. And you will help him, now, if you want us to help you any further.”
The younger woman’s eyes turned to Arnfinn. She raised her hand in a gesture of appeal, with wondering eyes, as if she was amazed that he would allow her to be so insulted.
He was silent for a few moments, looking from her to Yambu, and back. Then he said to Ninazu: “My lady, help him. If you please.”
Ninazu nodded, with acknowledgment of his command if not belief. Her look was one of dazed incomprehension.
But she turned back toward the pool and repeated the spell that she had used before.
Both victims were now undoubtedly alive and breathing, but neither of them was fully conscious, and it was obvious that both were going to need further help.
There was a rapping on the gate, and Ben opened it to admit soldiers who had come delivering food, hot drinks, the clothing and the blankets that had been ordered, a whole mound of them. Arnfinn went to help Ben take delivery.
Zoltan, attending to the two semiconscious men, muttered: “If we could only get them out to Draffut now-we need a boat for that.”
“There is-” Ninazu began, and then stopped as if she thought she had better say no more.
“There is what?” Arnfinn asked. “What, my beautiful one?” he coaxed.
“There is a small boat here,” Ninazu went on reluctantly. “The workers who maintain the pool use it to get back into the channel that leads from the lake into the well.”
By bending over and peering back into the tunnel’s mouth, it was just possible to see the boat where it was tied up. Reaching it would require opening a metal grillwork that blocked the tunnel entrance.
The grillwork could be opened only from inside the grotto, and Ninazu demonstrated how. In a moment Zoltan was splashing through the water, pulling in the little boat.
Meanwhile Ben and Yambu were frantically busy getting the two victims into dry clothes and trying to feed them broth and brandy. Then they put them into the boat.
“We must get them to Draffut,” Ben decided. This was a tactical decision, and Ben was in command.
Zoltan, at Ben’s orders, got in and started paddling. The boat was a tiny thing, unseaworthy, really meant for only one occupant. To take it out on the lake with three people was chancy, and to put any more in it would be suicidal.
Now Lady Ninazu approached Arnfinn. “I insist,” she dared to say, “that you take me to my brother at once.”
AT about an hour past midnight, the man who called himself the Ancient One had jumped astride his griffin and launched himself confidently into the night air from atop the highest tower of his captured castle.
His main objective was to find out what was happening on the mainland, in particular what had happened to his garrison at Triplicane. The last winged messenger to reach the castle from there had croaked out an almost indecipherable tale of calamity, a disturbing though incoherent report of what sounded like mass slaughter confused with entertainment, the performance of some show. To the Ancient Master it at first sounded like diabolically clever treachery by some member of that garrison.
As soon as the creature had delivered this message, it had simply flown off again into the night, in direct disobedience to orders. That had been more than an hour ago, and the flyer had not returned. Nor had any of the others.
It was also the powerful magician’s intention to discover what had suddenly gone wrong with his winged scouts. When he had climbed to the high aerie where his griffin rested, he had found the place empty except for the griffin, the cages and roosts used by the lesser beasts deserted. The two humans who were supposed to be in attendance on the beasts had looked on helplessly, fearful of their master’s wrath; the Ancient Master had only glowered at them, a look that promised much, before he hurried on.
Ordinarily he would allow no one but himself to ride the griffin, and unless he gave the griffin special instructions it would refuse to carry anyone but him.
Besides the difficulties on the mainland and the trouble with the scouts, there was another problem also requiring the wizard’s attention tonight. Something bizarre was reportedly moving around out in the lake, tipping boats and terrifying troops. All in all, the Ancient Lord had already become sufficiently concerned to take the first preliminary steps toward calling up a certain squadron of demons he had been keeping in reserve, a group that could be mobilized with relative ease. And the calling of demons was not a step that this wizard took lightly; he knew from bitter personal experience how great could be the dangers in trying to use such creatures as servants or allies.
Once he was well airborne, soaring high over the lake, he was able to see that a great many more lights were burning in and around Triplicane than was usual at this hour of the night.
From this altitude he could also see that the lakeside manor occupied by young Lady Ninazu was illuminated even more prodigally than the rest of the town. He decided that he would probably look in at the manor before returning to the castle, whether or not the garbled report of disaster proved to be a false alarm. There was no doubt that Ninazu could be an entertaining wench. There were several things about her that the wizard found especially intriguing, and if he had not been so busy trying to consolidate the gains he had won from Honan-Fu, he would have spent more time with her, or perhaps brought her to the castle-
The griffin was rapidly bearing the magician closer to the town and manor. Now he observed that the open field close before the manor was also encircled by torches, some of which had burned out, though a number were still guttering. They shed enough light upon that field to let him see that it was littered with what appeared to be the bodies of many soldiers, in uniforms of gray and red. The sight banished all thoughts of pleasure for the time being. The wizard who rode the midnight air commanded his griffin to descend. He needed no magical subtleties now to be sure that the report of disaster had not been false.
He was unable to count the bodies quickly enough to have the total before he landed, but certainly there were more than a hundred of them. More than half, at least, of the entire garrison.
What had caused the officers to gather their men here? And what had struck the troops down, once they were assembled?
The wizard landed and at once leaped from his steed’s back, drawing Shieldbreaker as he did so. The griffin, as accustomed as any beast could be to even stranger sights than this grim field, sat down as a dog or a lion might, with its forequarters high and its avian forelegs straight. In this position it waited quietly.
The Ancient One, Sword ready in his right hand, looked about him. Shieldbreaker was quiet, indicating that no enemies were lurking in the immediate area now. All across the field the bodies lay in a kind of random distribution; here a pile of several together, there a scattered few, there again an open space. And everywhere the ground could be seen it was lightly trampled, as if by hundreds of human feet.
There was something odd here, something beyond the fact of the slaughter in itself. It took the wizard another moment to realize what it was: many of the signs of a conventional battle were missing, including the inevitable broken weapons, the bits and pieces of equipment cast aside. He could hear no moaning wounded. And in fact, he realized after another moment, there was no blood at all to be seen. The men of his army had fallen in scores, perhaps in hundreds, but not one of them appeared to have drawn his weapon or tried to defend himself.
The light of the moon, now close to setting, combined with the orange glow shed by the guttering flames of the remaining torches, showed him a great, silent mystery.
The magician was not really surprised that no one had yet appeared from the manor or elsewhere to mourn the dead or begin the rituals of burial. The only real surprise, he thought, was that no robbers had yet appeared either. None of the bodies looked as if they had been rifled. Pouches that would hold personal belongings were still intact, here and there rings still showed on fingers.