Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

“I know that he’s alive,” she answered instantly, as if disgusted that such a question could even be raised.

“What, then?”

In answer she sank down on the narrow stair, sitting just below him and leaning on his knees. “Great lord,” she murmured. “Hold me. Help me.”

“I will! I will!”

“Have you any magic that can heal the heart and mind?”

“Ah, gods, Ninazu! Whatever magic I have to offer you is yours!”

And after that she would say no more, but clung to Arnfinn’s legs and wept. She would not move, nor respond to his questions, nor answer his entreaties. They sat there through the long hours of the night.

Ben, wearied with a day and a night of struggle and flight, had fallen asleep more or less wedged into a stony niche at the base of the grotto wall, near the steps that did not look like steps. Roused now by faint sounds, he awoke to find the head of another old campaigner, Lady Yambu, pillowed on his ample stomach. Ben shook her lightly, and in a moment she was wide awake, head up and listening in the earliest light of dawn.

The sound that had awakened Ben came again, softly. It was the faint splashing made by a paddle in the tunnel.

“Zoltan’s back,” Ben whispered, and moved to crouch beside the pool, straining his eyes into the darkness of the tunnel’s mouth across the narrow reach of water. The grillwork gate, unlocked last night, was still swung back.

Ben and Yambu were both on their feet and watching when the boat appeared. There was only one occupant-a tall man in his early thirties, now looking very much like his old self. When Mark stood up and stepped ashore, Ben seized him in a fierce, silent embrace, then held him at arm’s length. “You’re well?”

“Well enough.” Mark sounded like himself. “Zoltan got us out to Draffut; and he, all the gods be thanked, was able to restore us. Then Zoltan stayed there with Honan-Fu, to explain to the constabulary about Draffut, and the Swords.”

“The constabulary? I talked with Haakon, and some officer, Cheng Ho. They’re planning to move against the castle?”

Mark nodded. “With Draffut’s help. Lady Yambu, a thousand thanks for your efforts on my behalf. Zoltan has told me of them.”

The lady smiled remotely. “They were efforts well invested, I should say.”

Ben sighed, feeling the relief of being able to hand over responsibility as well as that of seeing the Prince alive and well. “What do we do now?” he asked his leader.

Mark looked around at the confining walls, and up toward the cleverly constructed niche where Ninazu and the Sword-bearer had disappeared. He said: “We can’t take the boat out into the lake now. It’s too light, and they’d kill us from the walls when we came out. So we find a place, somewhat less inconspicuous than this one, in which to spend the day. Honan-Fu was able to give me a hint or two.”

As the first light of morning began to creep into the narrow passage where Ninazu and Arnfinn had spent much of the night, the lady stirred, then jumped to her feet to look out of the window. Arnfinn, straightening his stiffened limbs to stand beside her, was in time to see the Ancient Master returning from the mainland on his griffin. The winged creature landed a hundred meters away, atop the one tower of the castle that was even taller than the one from which they watched.

Ninazu stared at this aerial apparition in amazement. When it had vanished into the aerie she turned to look at Arnfinn, and some of her sudden tension left her again.

“I understand,” she said. “That was a deception, of course. A magical counterfeit of yourself, a phantom launched so that others would believe that you had left the castle, while all the time you really were with me.”

And she took him trustingly by the arm.

Arnfinn drew in a deep breath. “Of course,” he said. Then something made him turn his head. There was no danger to be seen in the half-light of earliest dawn. There was nothing alarming to be heard. But something was certainly wrong.

“What is it?” he muttered. “I feel sick.”

The lady looked pale, and her eyes were closed. “It is only demons,” she murmured. “As my lord knows very well.”

“Demons.” Arnfinn swallowed. “Where?”

Ninazu did not answer. She was leaning on the stone sill of the narrow window again, gazing out. The sky was now as clear and innocent as it could be at dawn.

Fiercely Arnfinn determined that, no matter what, he was not going to be incapacitated by these queasy sensations that seemed to come from nowhere. Nor was he going to waste any more time if he could help it. Looking about him, he took note that the passage going on above them was no longer a well of total darkness. Light, very faint and indirect daylight, was coming into it from somewhere higher up. Now Arnfinn could see that after a few more steps the passage turned inward in a sharp bend. These walls were not thick enough to accommodate much turning. A room of some kind, with windows, must be just ahead.

Arnfinn drew a deep breath. “Of course,” he repeated. “I am the lord of this castle. Now I am going on, into that room above us. Are you going to follow me?”

Before the morning’s sun had risen entirely above the cliffs that served as distant guardians of Lake Alkmaar’s eastern shores, the demonic presences summoned by the Ancient One had begun to manifest themselves more strongly in his vicinity.

As yet the demons had not become physically visible, but they were making their presences known in their own way. A vague, inward sickness was spreading throughout the local human population, a malaise, a foreboding that descended on people with the power of physical illness. Only a few magicians, already inured to such evil, were immune to the effect.

The demons here, like all their brethren scattered about the world, were very old, within a few years of the age of Draffut himself, as old as the changing of the world itself from Old to New. Not since that great changing of the world-or so said the magicians who claimed to know about such things-had any new demons been created. But despite the demons’ antiquity, some of them still had very little experience in the world of human affairs.

On this morning the first physical manifestation of their presence took the form of a clouding of the atmosphere before the eyes of the Ancient One, who was standing atop the highest tower to watch their arrival. Soon, other human watchers in and near the castle were able to see something of them too.

Then the leader of this demon-pack, whose name was Akbal, appeared more distinctly to the human who had summoned him, in the form of a smoky column that hung in the air close in front of the high tower.

“Hail, Master Wood,” said a voice that issued from the faint, dark column. “I am surprised to see you in this time and place.” It was not a human voice, nor was it loud. The only man who could hear it was reminded, as he usually was on these occasions, of dead leaves being blown through loosely piled bones.

“All times and places are mine now, Akbal,” the man replied. “How many others have come with you?”

“There are five others, Master Wood.”

The man sighed. If any other human beings had been with him atop the tower, close enough to hear that sound, they might have found it surprising that such evidence of commonplace humanity could issue from those lips, which had now resumed their reptilian form again. “It is a long time,” he said, “since any have called me by that name. A very long time indeed.”

“Then by what title shall I know you, master? I know that Wood is not your true and secret name-”

“It is quite good enough. Yes, it will do. Now, Akbal, to business. Are you strong?”

“Indeed, Master Wood. I do not mean to boast, but I have grown considerably in strength since either you, or that accursed one I now see wading in the lake, has seen me last. I take it that he, the Accursed One, is the reason for this summoning.”

“You gauge my purpose correctly, demon. Now attend me carefully, Akbal, and you others, also.”

While the shadowy forms of five other demons hovered in the air nearby, their leader, Akbal, was given his instructions by their human master.

The briefing did not occupy much time. When it was over, the demon professed to be pleased that he had been chosen to lead an attack on Draffut.

Then Akbal and his cohort, drifting lower over the lake, moved out to several hundred meters’ distance from the castle, and the same distance from Draffut, whom they began to engage in a dialogue.

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