Saberhagen, Fred 02 – Sightblinder’s Story

“That-that’s beside the point.”

She shrugged boldly. “We didn’t know quite what it was going to be like. But we could have managed, we could have stayed in control, Kunderu and I together.” Then the growing, visible anger of his wizard-image crushed her opposition, and she shrank back timidly. “Oh, great lord, we were very young.”

“Yes. You were. You must have been. Demons are tremendously dangerous, and I am glad that you did not succeed.” Arnfinn spoke with great conviction, as if he really were a wizard and knew what he was talking about. Maybe, after this morning’s brief whiff of demons in the tunnel, he knew enough.

Ninazu looked at Arnfinn strangely now. “I have told you, my lord, my lover, that you were our first success.”


“Yes, lord. I see that you are pleased to have another jest at my expense.”

“How, in what way, was I a success for you? When? I want you to tell me.”

Ninazu stood with downcast eyes, almost in the attitude of a child fearing punishment. Still her tone dared to be reproachful. “It was two years ago, lord. A little more than two years now… but you know all this as well as I do, lord. You know it better.”

“Tell me, I say. I want you to tell me what you are talking about, what happened, just as you remember it.”

“Yes, lord. I am talking about the help we gave you, Kunderu’s help and mine, that enabled you to find your way here across the ages.”

“Across the what?”

Ninazu ignored the question. “We were looking for something that would-irritate our father, show him what we could do, that we could be magicians too.”

“The help you gave me?” Arnfinn was struggling to understand, but at the same time not at all sure that he wanted to understand.

“You and I have talked about all this before, my lord and lover.” Ninazu sighed. “Many times we have laughed about it in our bed.”

Arnfinn was very tired. He sat down on a stool before one of the tables. “Never mind that. I would hear it all again.”

The lady leaned against the other table, her arms folded. She recited: “Kunderu and I were very angry at our father for being so oppressive all the time. We had been experimenting with ways to get back at him. We worked and worked, until finally our efforts-brought us in touch with Your Lordship, across the gulf of years.”

Arnfinn couldn’t understand what she meant by the gulf of years. “You were trying to evoke a demon, I suppose. And you got me instead.”

“Have I displeased you, great lord, with my poor telling? Did it really happen in some other way?”

“I don’t suppose so, Ninazu. No, you must know what happened. I am sure it must have happened as you say.” Arnfinn rested his chin on his fist and tried to think.

Ninazu was musing aloud, as if she too were grappling with some kind of puzzle. “You could have found someone else in this time to help you, I suppose. But Kunderu and I were the ones you chose.” Suddenly grief and fear overwhelmed her again. Raising her head, she cried out: “Kunderu, where are you?”

A gull-winged lake bird had been just about to land on the sill of one of the open windows behind her, and her sudden outcry frightened it off. The bird veered away from the tower, letting out a loud, harsh cry.

Ninazu screamed, and spun around in terror.

Arnfinn experienced a sudden insight. “It was only a bird, Ninazu. Are you really so afraid of your brother as all that?”

“You are wicked to say that!” Then, aghast at her own boldness, she brought her hands up to her mouth.

“You were afraid to come into these rooms when you thought he might still be here.”

“I love my brother, and I will save him!”

“Are you sure that he is really a prisoner? How are you so sure? These rooms are not a prison,” Arnfinn pointed out. “We got into them easily enough, without passing any locked doors or guards. Kunderu, if he was here, ought to have been able to get out the same way. Besides, it doesn’t look to me like anyone has lived here for a long time.”

“He was here!” Ninazu whispered the words with tremendous conviction.

“He’s not here now. Maybe he’s somewhere else in the castle. Or maybe somewhere else altogether.”

Lady Ninazu’s eyes had closed, as if she were in agony. “Kunderu is here somewhere,” she breathed, softly but with great intensity. “My brother is here, and I am going to save him.”

“All right, if you say so. But I don’t see or hear anyone in these rooms but us. He’s not here now.”

“Great lord,” she breathed more softly and hopelessly still, “I had thought that you were going to help me.”

And with that Ninazu slumped down into one of the dusty chairs and abandoned herself to the saddest, most hopeless weeping that Arnfinn had ever heard.

In a moment Arnfinn was at her side, all his efforts to be firm and practical crumbling into dust. “I will help you. I will help you, whatever you say. Whatever I must do.” And he held her fiercely, in bewildered helplessness.

Mark, with Ben and Lady Yambu nearby, had been standing atop one of the lower parts of the grotto wall when he shouted at the demons to disperse.

“The same shout that sent them off,” Ben commented, “will draw some people here. People of a kind I fear we’ll like no better than the demons.” He gestured at the wall with the hidden exit. “Let’s move on up.”

“Yes, it would seem to be time for that.”

With Mark in the lead, the three of them climbed to the niche where Ninazu and the latest Sword-bearer, whoever he was, had disappeared. They entered the dark tunnel that they found there, and advanced cautiously. As they climbed farther they began to speculate in low voices on the possible identity of the person who was now carrying the Sword of Stealth.

Yambu, ascending between the two men, said that she now felt reasonably sure it was the youth Arnfinn they were following.

Ben, who was bringing up the rear, was more than a little skeptical of that suggestion. “That scrawny peasant? I find it difficult to believe he would have had the guts to come after Zoltan and me, and hit Zoltan over the head in that shed. And then, to get aboard a griffin, and ride it out here-”

Here in the dark tunnel where no one could see her, Yambu allowed herself to smile broadly. “What you tell me you went through to get here, my friend, was hardly less fantastic.”

Ben grunted something, then swore softly when he stumbled in the darkness. Mark, alertly in the lead, was silent.

The three of them went on up.

Their general plan now was to reach one of the hiding places high in the structure of the castle recommended by Honan-Fu; also Mark and Ben in particular nursed some hopes of being able to get back the Sword of Stealth from Arnfinn, if it was really he who was carrying it again.

Their whispered planning session had not made much headway, nor had they gained much distance upward along their gloomy escape route, when Ben hissed for silence. His two companions halted with him, holding their breath. In a moment they were all able to hear the soldiers arriving in the grotto they had just left. It sounded like one had come over the wall to open the locked gate for the others. In another moment there was a whole squad of them in the grotto, beginning a clamorous search.

Mark, Yambu, and Ben crept on, as silently as possible. Almost at once cries of surprise sounded from below and behind them, indicating that the soldiers had found the two ropes severed and the prisoners gone.

Mark methodically continued upward. The two others followed. Either the soldiers would quickly locate the hidden exit from the grotto, or they would not. After a minute Ben muttered: “I could wish for Wayfinder in a place like this. Or Coinspinner at least.”

“Go ahead,” Mark whispered over his shoulder. “But you won’t have either one of them in hand after you’ve wished. So let’s get on with what we have.”

Which was not, Mark added silently to himself, much in the way of weapons. Ben had left his staff behind him long ago, and Lady Yambu was an unarmed pilgrim. Mark himself had brought one dagger back with him from his trip out into the lake, a gift from the officer Cheng Ho passed on to Mark by Draffut.

At least all three of them had eaten heartily last night, and all had been granted an interval for rest. These benefits, along with Draffut’s healing treatment of Mark, had restored them all to something approaching normal strength and energy. Before they left the grotto Ben had refilled a couple of last night’s drink containers at the well, and slung them on his belt; if they could find a hiding place, they ought not to die of thirst for a day or two at least.

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