By now the water of the lake, stretching in a flat plain far to left and right beneath his griffin’s wings, was no longer black with night. Now it was glowing very faintly with the reflection of the first beginnings of daylight in the sky.
Something, some moving presence in the lake, drew a slow dark line across that faint metallic glow. Some object tall as a tree, in its majestic passage through the water, was leaving a long triangular wake. The object was a towering, almost man-shaped figure that waded on two legs between two of Lake Alkmaar’s little islands-
The Ancient Master uttered a soft exclamation, followed by several magical incantations. Then he murmured a command in his griffin’s ear, and the creature turned aside from its direct course to the castle. Down they went.
The wizard had been worried when his subordinates told him of what was happening out on the lake at night, that some strange presence there was wreaking havoc on his boats. And he had become all the more worried, as paradoxical as that seemed to his subordinates, when it became clear that this strange new enemy was not actually killing any of his men. He feared that he could recognize a certain signature in that reluctance -and now in the first tentative light of day that recognition had been confirmed.
The Ancient One commanded his steed to circle Draffut at low altitude, and at a respectful distance. The wader stopped, and his great head turned, following the flight of griffin and wizard without apparent surprise.
At last the shadowy giant, half-enveloped in a rising billow of morning mist, called out: “I am here, little man. Bring here your Sword and try to kill me, if you will.”
But the man who rode the griffin knew better than to attack any unarmed opponent, let alone this one, with the Sword of Force. Instead he turned his mount without replying, and sped on to his castle, landing at the high aerie. Soon he would have demons on hand to do his fighting for him.
THE faint splash of Zoltan’s paddle could still be A heard receding down the tunnel when Lady Ninazu moved away from the others and came around the edge of the grotto pool to Arnfinn, who had already drawn a little apart. He saw her eyes gleaming with the reflection of distant starlight as she drew near him, and he heard her say: “I am ready now, my Ancient Lord, for you to lead me to my brother.”
Arnfinn dreaded the thought of having to lie to her any longer. “And if I were to tell you, my lady, that I do not know where he is?”
Her gaze flickered away and back to him. Her chin lifted in conviction. “Then I would think that you were pleased to jest with me, great lord. You are the master of this castle, and must know what is within it. And, even if you did not, I know where Kunderu is.”
In solemn silence Ninazu turned slightly away from him, and raised one slender arm to point. Her small, pale hand extended one finger toward the top of the castle’s central tower.
Arnfinn said: “If you can lead me to your brother, Lady Ninazu, then I will set him free.”
Her marvelous eyes searched him. “You promise that?”
“I swear it.”
The solemnity of her regard lasted for only a moment longer. Then it melted in the ghost of a smile. She said: “We can start from here, in the grotto, and go along a secret way. Kunderu and I used it often when we were children.”
She turned away from Arnfinn, and to his surprise began to climb along the wall, stepping on an irregular series of carved and built-in decorations that made a kind of fanciful stairway. Arnfinn raised the torch he was still holding and looked at the wall. The narrow, uneven steps that Ninazu was climbing gave the impression of not being a real stair chiefly because they went nowhere at all, ending in the middle of the wall where there were three shallow decorative niches. Beyond that point the inner wall of the grotto stretched up flat and unclimbable. Lady Yambu and Ben were watching her with curiosity as she went up.
When she was very nearly at the topmost step, Ninazu turned, and beckoned to Arnfinn with one finger.
He followed her. It was only when his climbing feet had attained a man’s height above the surface of the pool that he was able to see that the stair went somewhere after all. What had looked from below like a blind decorative niche, set between two more shallow niches just like it, turned out when seen from this angle to be the genuine entrance to a passageway.
Ninazu’s smile became more impish, or perhaps simply more childlike, when she saw Arnfinn’s surprise -or rather the surprise of the person whose image he was wearing in her eyes. She said to him: “My father delighted in building such tricks as this. And when Kunderu and I were children, we found new uses for them.” She giggled.
The passage into which she now led Arnfinn was narrow, barely wide enough for one person, and windowless. Chill air blew through it gently from somewhere up ahead. And as they went it soon became so dark that Arnfinn, following the lady, had to put one hand in front of him and touch her back to make sure she was there. He had the Sword sheathed now, and his left hand rested on its pommel.
The passage climbed, on little steps. He knew that they must now be threading their way upward through the enormous thickness of the outer wall of the keep itself. After some minutes of silent ascent they emerged, to Arnfinn’s surprise, in the prosaic environment of a lofty storeroom. Obviously the place, with dust and cobwebs everywhere, had not been much used of late.
Now he could see Ninazu again, by the faint moonlight coming in through a tall, narrow window. Still smiling, she led him through the cavernous storeroom and opened a creaking door. Together they peered into the corridor outside, which was lighted only by remote torches, and locally deserted. Motioning for Arnfinn to follow, the lady moved out into the hall and turned to the right, where the corridor soon ended in a peculiar little balcony, open to the night.
The balcony, when they had gone out onto it, seemed to come to a dead end. But when they walked around a decorative column, they came to another narrow, unsuspected opening in the wall.
Before he followed Ninazu into this dark doorway, Arnfinn looked around to get his bearings. They were already at a considerable height above the dark lake, and about to enter the base of the castle’s central tower.
The wall through which this second hidden passage ascended was not as massive as that of the lower keep, but still it was a good three meters or more in thickness, allowing plenty of room inside it for the narrow, hollow way.
They had barely started up through this second passage when Ninazu turned her head to gibe at Arnfinn like a little girl. “Admit it! You, the high lord of the castle, didn’t even know that these tunnels were here!”
“I have already admitted it.”
They moved on, with impervious darkness closing in on them again.
Into the darkness Arnfinn said: “These secret passages must not extend all the way to your brother’s prison room, or else Kunderu would have used them to get out.”
The lady ahead of him stopped suddenly, and he could hear her suddenly indrawn breath.
Then she moved on, climbing more stairs, but only for a short distance. Before Arnfinn was expecting the climb to end they came to a window that looked out over the darkened lake, under the starry sky. A few lights, small fires, speckled the distant shore. Here Lady Ninazu stopped. Arnfinn could faintly distinguish her profile against the stars as she stood looking out.
After some time had passed in which she said nothing and gave no sign of moving on, he prodded: “Well? Aren’t we going on?”
“I don’t know,” she said after a time. And it seemed to Arnfinn that her voice was strangely altered.
“You don’t know?”
She didn’t answer.
Arnfinn persisted. “I thought you were so anxious to see that your brother was set free.”
Still Ninazu had nothing to say to him.
He squeezed past her where she was standing at the window, and then sat down just above her on the narrow stairs. He did not know why, but he was rapidly developing a sense that doom was closing in on him.
Presuming on his supposed authority, he spoke to Ninazu more sternly: “Answer me! Are you afraid of what we’re going to see when we find him? Are you afraid that he’s no longer alive?”