Presently the three came to the end of the first hidden passage, to find themselves in what looked like an ordinary if almost unused storeroom. Mark paused in the entrance to the storeroom, frowning. This was really not what any of them had been expecting. Honan-Fu’s directions for finding a hiding place had been hurried and perhaps unclear. The three paused for a brief whispered conference.
There were two doors to the storeroom, besides the one by which they had entered, and the three people had no means of telling which way Ninazu and her Sword-bearer might have taken from this point.
Before the three had chosen a way to go, they could hear movement outside one of the doors.
Quickly and efficiently, making plans with no more than a swift exchange of gestures, they had arranged themselves in ambush, with the men against the wall behind the door.
The door swung in. There was only one soldier, and he had come alone here to look for someone or something, not expecting trouble. He saw Yambu, standing alone in the middle of the dingy storeroom, and he took a step toward her and started to ask a puzzled question.
He never got the question out. A moment later, Ben was able to unbuckle the sword belt from the soldier’s body; he needed to pick up the soldier’s dagger, too, and use the fine point to bore another hole in the belt before he could buckle that belt around his own waist over the strongman costume. While he was thus engaged, Mark dragged the lifeless body out of sight.
Yambu signed for silence, then made another gesture, pointing back over her shoulder. There were faint sounds, as of cautious footsteps, in the tunnel through which they had come up. Evidently the enemy had found the hidden entrance to the tunnel and were already following them up from the grotto.
The three went warily out into the corridor from which the lone soldier had entered. Mark shrugged over the choice of directions, and turned left. Moving in that direction, they quickly reached an ascending stairway, which took them steeply up again. Going higher within the architecture of any castle was very likely to bring you to a more defensible position. The structures were, after all, designed with defense in mind.
This stair went up a little way without a break, or any other exit, and then emerged onto the cylindrical outer surface of the tower. At this point it became almost uncomfortably narrow, with only a sheer drop on the left side, and continued up around the outside of the tower in a spiral.
The stair did not quite reach the top, but came to an abrupt end some three or four meters below a gap in the parapet encircling the roof. From the top of the stair a removable wooden ladder extended the rest of the way to the top. The three went up this ladder and found themselves on the tower’s flat, circular stone-paved roof, some ten paces in diameter.
There was a small roof cistern here, which had some water in it; Ben’s jugs were probably not going to be necessary after all. Most of the tower’s rooftop was open to the sky, but at the side of the roof opposite the cistern a small, half-open shed had been constructed, to serve as shelter for a lookout and perhaps for a small signal fire. Some wood was stacked for this contingency. In another place a pile of head-sized stones had been neatly pyramided, a routine provision of armament for any last-ditch defenders who wished to discourage their enemies from following them up the stairs.
The wooden ladder was obviously another means to that end, and Ben had already taken advantage of it, pulling the ladder up briskly after them. None too soon, perhaps. The ladder had only just been removed when Yambu took a quick glance back and down upon the exterior stair and saw red and gray uniforms coming up.
“Hush!” she warned her companions softly.
Listening, all three of them were able to hear a dogged, soft, dull thudding noise.
“Shieldbreaker,” Mark breathed unhappily.
The other two nodded. They had all heard before the sound made by that Sword as it was carried into combat range of its bearer’s enemies, whoever they might be.
Whoever now had the Sword of Force in hand was coming along their trail, up the exterior stairway. But whoever he was, he could not get at them, at least for the moment.
“But listen again,” Ben whispered, frowning. “I could swear that there are two of them. Two Swords.”
Straining his ears, Mark found that he could indeed make out an extra, doubled thudding.
“There cannot be two,” Yambu objected softly but angrily, as if she were quietly outraged that the rules of the Sword-game might have been changed without her being told.
“Wait,” whispered Mark. “I wonder. Yes, that must be it. Sightblinder.”
The others frowned at him, then Ben’s face brightened suddenly with understanding. “Yes, we’ve been following Sightblinder, or trying to. If that peasant, or whoever he is, is in some room of this tower just below us… and his Sword is doing an imitation of Shieldbreaker-yes, that would do it.”
“Ho, on the roof!” The voice was powerful, and so loud that some manner of magic, or Old-World technology perhaps, must be in use to augment it.
“Do you suppose we ought to answer?” Yambu whispered very softly.
Mark and Ben exchanged frowns, giving the question silent consideration.
“Ho, there! This is the master of the castle speaking! Let your ladder down for us at once! You are trapped, and I will show you mercy if you come down now!”
* * *
After exchanging looks with her companions, Yambu made answer with a rock, which she handled over to the edge of the roof with wiry strength, and dropped just over the head of the stair below. Prudently she refrained from looking over the edge to observe the exact result. There was an explosive crash, and small rock-fragments sang through the air in all directions.
There were no more shouted demands after that. Listening carefully, the three on the roof could hear the people on the stairs quietly retreating.
Things settled down for the time being into a waiting mode.
The only place from which anyone could see the top of this tower was the top of the only higher tower, where the aerie was, at least a hundred meters distant. And if the three retreated under the lookout’s shelter they would be invisible even from there, and probably immune from any speculative stones or arrows launched from that high place.
The afternoon was wearing on. As was perhaps inevitable, the talk among the three people on the roof turned to the Swords and their various powers. Long before the day was over, Mark had time to reminisce about the occasion upon which he had carried Sight-blinder into the camp of the Dark King himself.
“And the Sword of Stealth has another power that is more subtle than the one of which we are always aware. The verse tells it: ‘his eyes are keen…’ I scarcely understood it at the time, but when I looked at the Dark King and his magicians, I could see their evil.”
WOOD, ascending the exterior stair that curved around the tower, with the great Sword Shield-breaker thudding softly in his right hand and a squad of picked troops at his back, knew that he had reached the top of the stair no more than a few minutes behind his quarry. Quite possibly it had been a nearer miss than that. He did not actually see the wooden ladder being pulled up out of his reach, but he saw the supports where it had rested, and he surmised its very recent removal. And Shieldbreaker was now signaling the near presence of his enemies. Wood could not see or hear them on the roof above, but he knew that they were there.
He smiled lightly to himself. He could hear a duplicated thudding, keeping time like a faint echo with the sound of his own Sword, and in the first moment after the Ancient Master heard that echo he realized where it must be coming from. It was coming from the Sword of Stealth, in the impostor’s possession; and that Sword now had to be somewhere very near at hand.
Before calling on his prey to surrender, Wood took a moment in which to survey the general situation. Whoever was on the roof might well be trapped there, though for the moment in a snugly defensible position. Plainly there was no way but this stair to reach the tower’s roof from the outside, short of using chains and grappling irons slung over the parapets-matters might eventually come to that-or by flying. The wizard took a moment in which to curse the decision that had made him send his griffin away with Amintor. But there was no help now for mistakes already made.