Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

Transport for several hundred men was thus available. Nor had there been any difficulty in gathering sufficient arms. Besides the weapons that had been successfully hidden away during the brief occupation, enough more had been picked up from the field in front of the manor to arm at least a hundred men.

Zoltan had heard that there were a few military survivors of that massacre, and he had even talked to one of them, a young private soldier in a dirty uniform of red and gray, who was now confined under guard in a shed next to the one in which Zoltan had been sleeping.

The youth appeared somewhat fearful of what was going to happen to him next, but the main impression that he conveyed was of sheer gladness in being still alive.

“Why are you still alive, do you suppose?” Zoltan asked him curiously after the prisoner had told him a brief version of the disaster.

The other young man shook his head, as if at some wonder he could not understand no matter how he tried. “I don’t know. I just don’t know. When that show started, everyone around me, almost, started laughing.’… Were you there?”

“No. But I’ve talked to someone else who was.”

The former enemy shook his head again. “I just don’t know why I’m still here. Everyone was laughing, but I just didn’t see nothing to laugh at. Them girls having their clothes ripped off, that wasn’t funny. Nobody had ought to do that. And the little fella in the clown suit, he acted like he was trying to protect ’em, even if he got himself killed. I wouldn’t have had the guts to do that, but I didn’t think it was funny either.”

“No,” said Zoltan. “No, I wouldn’t have laughed at that.”

“And all the rest of my company are dead, they tell me, and here I am still alive. It’s strange. I’m just lucky, I guess.”

Zoltan left him in the shed. The young man was still marveling at his own survival, and ready to tell the story again, if someone else would listen.

It was well after dark when the assault force finally pushed off, some two hundred men and a few women in more than twenty boats. Zoltan, having eaten heartily again, and armed from the common stock of weapons, was aboard one of them.

At sunrise, as soon as the brief sickness brought on by demons had suddenly abated, Arnfinn had gone on alone into the hidden rooms of the central tower. By that time he had temporarily given up trying to persuade Lady Ninazu to come with him. He didn’t know what was wrong with her-as near as he could tell, she was afraid that her brother would not be here after all. Or else she was afraid he would.

As Arnfinn soon discovered, there were four rooms

in this hidden suite, two on the level entered from the tunnel and two more just above, on the highest interior level of the tower. He spent an hour alone in these rooms, searching them carefully, making sure in his own mind that Ninazu’s brother was not here. No one was, except himself. Nor was there any sign that anyone had lived here very recently, nor was there anything about the rooms to make Arnfinn think they might have been used as a prison.

The four rooms, two on one level and two on the next, connected by a single narrow interior stairway, occupied the top two stories of the central tower. The tower narrowed slightly here, toward its top, and none of the rooms were very large. All of them were furnished, and they did contain plenty of potential hiding places: there were beds with spaces beneath, disused cabinets and wardrobes, and closets stuffed with junk, much of it children’s toys. Arnfinn had done as thorough a job as he possibly could of searching through all these nooks and crannies, making sure that neither Kunderu nor anyone else was lying in concealment.

Each room was lighted and aired by two narrow windows, built out in a slight bulge of wall and equipped with interior shutters, most of which were standing open. Arnfinn supposed a slender person might have been able to squeeze his way in or out through one of these windows, or at least could do so if there were anything but the sheer face of the wall outside. There were no other visible entrances or exits to the apartment, except the tunnel through which Arnfinn and Ninazu had come up.

As Arnfinn went through these rooms he received a strong impression that no one could have occupied them for a long time, perhaps for years. A thin film of dust covered all horizontal surfaces, and there was unmistakable evidence that some of the waterfowl so plentiful around the lake had taken advantage of the open windows to come in from time to time.

Several times during the hour that he spent alone in these rooms Arnfinn had interrupted his examination of the place to look out into the dim passageway again and speak softly to Ninazu, trying to persuade her to join him. He had almost given up on being able to do this, when he looked up from the examination of a cabinet and saw her standing in the doorway of the passage, looking in at him.

For a moment neither of them spoke. Then Arnfinn said gently: “Your brother isn’t here after all.”

She looked back at him helplessly, saying nothing. Her elaborate long dress, not made for boat rides and climbing through dark passages, was smudged and slightly torn in a couple of places, and her hair hung round her face in disarray. She was absolutely the most beautiful thing that Arnfinn had ever seen.

Arnfinn, now feeling as helpless as the lady looked, cast his gaze around the room in which they were standing. It was on the lower level of the apartment, and roughly semicircular in shape. There were chairs and dusty tables in the middle of this room, as if for some kind of bookish work, and shelves of books around the curving walls. Arnfinn had learned to read, better at least than most of the people in his village. But he had never seen as many books as this, and many of the titles were in languages he did not know. Even those in his own language were hard to understand. At least some of them, he was sure, must have something to do with magic.

He said: “I suppose you and Kunderu must have lived in these rooms. There are beds in the two rooms upstairs.”

“Yes, my brother and I lived here much of the time.” Ninazu came closer to him, walking slowly into the center of the room. It was as if she had forgotten again that there was something here of which she was afraid. “We were always together when we were children. We made up our own games, Kunderu and I. Even when we were very young we knew we were both going to be magicians.”

“Like your father.”

“Oh, father, yes. Father pretty much let us do whatever we wanted.” The lady shrugged. “He was usually busy with his own work.”

Arnfinn felt a tremendous relief that she was at least talking to him rationally again. “What about your mother?” he asked. “You’ve never told me anything about her.”

Ninazu drew symbols with one finger in the faint dust on a workbench. She said: “I don’t know much about her. She died when Kunderu and I were very young.”

“That must have been very sad for you.”

“I don’t remember.” Ninazu’s voice was remote. She turned away from Arnfinn and went to a set of cabinets, tall and ornately carved, that stood against the flat interior wall beside the doorway to the adjoining room, and below more shelves of books. She pulled open the doors of one of the tall cabinets, and then stood looking at the diverse objects arrayed on the shelves inside as if she had expected to see something rather different. Many of the things on the shelves were hard for Arnfinn to recognize. There were bones and a stuffed bird, and little piles of what looked to him like rather ordinary rocks.

The lady was pointing at one of the small piles of rocks now. She said thoughtfully: “Kunderu was trying to evoke a demon once, when he was only twelve. He was using these. Father found out before he got very far and made him stop.”

Arnfinn was aghast. “Fortunately!” was the only comment he could find to make.

Lady Ninazu looked at him with almost open rebellion in her eyes. “My brother could have controlled a demon, with my help.”

“But-Ninazu, a demon! You felt the ones outside just now. How could you have wanted-that? How could your brother want it?”

Ninazu’s gaze had become almost demure. “You have never dealt with demons, lord?”

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