The right hand of the one who sat upon the throne was more plainly visible than the rest of his figure. That hand was extended at shoulder height, and clutched the black hilt of a Sword. The gleaming blade of this weapon, a full meter long, was dug lightly, point-first, into the floor of the balcony at the base of the makeshift throne.
Anyone standing close enough to get a good look at the fist that held the Sword could see that it was gray and taloned, almost as much like a bird’s or a dragon’s claw as it was like a human hand. Its owner’s survival over the millennia had not been easily accomplished, and it had involved him in several compromises, of which the one involving alterations in his physical shape had been only the most noticeable.
The courtyard was nearly quiet now, a deepening pool of shadow as daylight began fading from the sky. Torches were being lighted, and once a long flame snapped like a banner in a gust of wind. But here, inside the castle’s outer walls, the wind did not persist.
Only recently, within the past hour, had this quiet been achieved. Some of Honan-Fu’s apprentices had fought back against their conquerors even as they were being dragged to the altar, or even after reaching it; and some of those apprentices had been, by any ordinary standard, magicians of considerable strength. But against the powers that had seized this castle from their master, their best efforts had been infantile, completely useless. All of their powers were scattered before the sacrifice, and in the process of the sacrifice itself their bodies were burned and minced, their minds dispatched to meet whatever fate the minds of magicians encountered after death.
The resistance of their master, Honan-Fu, had been more prolonged, but in the end no more effective. He had been overcome in magic, but he had not been burnt in sacrifice. His vanquisher considered that he had better use for him than that.
The still-living body of Honan-Fu was bound now between a pair of tall stakes standing before the altar, and certain human servants of the conqueror were dousing the defeated magician with pails of cold water filled at the pulsing spray of a broken fountain. Magic, the magic of his conqueror, against which Honan-Fu was no longer capable of fighting, was going on him with the water, and his sparse frame and wrinkled face were being rapidly covered with a mail-coat of ice. The crystalline white coat was still thin, and it cracked with his uncontrollable shivering almost as fast as it was formed; but with every pail of water thrown upon him it inexorably grew thicker.
“There will still be room inside your icicle for you to shiver, if not to breathe,” called down the one who sat upon the throne; his was a human voice, harsh but not extraordinary. “You will find yourself able to dispense with breathing for a while, at least as long as you are under water. As most of your future existence lies in that environment, I thought it best to arrange something of the kind.”
If Honan-Fu had any response to make, it must have been a silent one. He was a small man with wispy gray hair and epicanthic eyes, who had said very little to any of his conquerors since their first onslaught took him by surprise. And perhaps he was silent because by now his ice-encrusted lips had already grown too cold and stiff to talk.
“You will be brought out of the lake from time to time,” called down the man-or being-on the throne, “to talk to me. You and I have much to talk about. But I am somewhat pressed for time just now, and our talk will have to wait. Unless there is something you feel you must say to me before you go. Any defiance you feel compelled to offer? Any bargainings you’d like to try? Now is the time, or they will have to wait indefinitely….”
Still, the shivering little wizard had nothing to say in reply. Instead he had one more counterattack to try -magical, of course, -and it was more subtle and ingenious than any he had previously essayed. The man on the throne, despite his own ancient powers, had no inkling that the attack was coming until he was informed of it by a thrum of power in the Sword he held. Only half a heartbeat later did the conqueror’s more conventional defenses, his personal spells and demons, come into play; they would have protected him adequately, he was almost sure, but even before they were activated the counter spell of Honan-Fu had been rendered harmless by the Sword of Force.
The man on the throne was surprised and delighted to observe the effectiveness of his latest acquisition.
“Shieldbreaker, hey?” He held the Sword up at arm’s length and admired it. It and its eleven fellows were of divine workmanship, he had been told; he had discounted that theory until now. But now, he realized, he was going to have to trace down the truth of their provenance.
“I could feel that power,” he said, more to himself than to anyone else. “I like it. This toy is going to remain at my side for some time to come, though as a rule I have a dislike for carrying edged weapons of any kind.”
He wondered now, in passing, how effective this Sword might have been in an earlier era of his life, if it were set in opposition to the titanic powers of Orcus or of Ardneh-but those were tests, thank all the gods and demons, that he would never have to face again. The magician on the throne, who had been no more than human in that era, had somehow managed to survive both of those superpowers.
And, from what he had seen of this future world during two years of tentative exploration since his arrival in it, he expected to be able to reign supreme.
Honan-Fu was by now completely encased in ice if still not exactly frozen solid. At a signal from the throne, burly attendants now untied the defeated magician from the tall wooden stakes, and dragged him away to be lowered into the lake. The spot selected was in its own little courtyard, really a grotto, a deeply arched recess in the wall of the keep itself. Behind its gate was a deep permanent well of fresh water, maintained by a direct connection to the lake outside the castle walls. Originally this well, or pool, had been intended to provide easy access to drinking water even during a hard-pressed siege. The grotto holding the well was accessible from the large courtyard through a small gate.
As the former master of the castle was carried through the small gate and out of sight, the man on the throne heaved a sigh, like one who has disposed of yet another dull duty in a busy day. He toyed with his newly acquired Sword, spinning it briefly like an auger, so that light of torches flickered from its brightness, and the keen point bored a very little deeper into the stone floor of the balcony.
And then his whole being appeared to change. Where he had been grotesque, only marginally human, he now appeared as a muscular young man, golden-haired, blue-eyed, and of surpassing beauty.
“Now,” he called in an unchanged voice to his chief subordinate, an aging, bulky man in military uniform who stood below. “Bring out this Prince who owned this lovely implement before me. I’d like to have a word with him before he’s put away.”
“I know him, sire,” the man below responded. “And I think he will repay more than a few minutes of Your Lordship’s attention.”
The officer turned away and made an economical gesture of command. Presently the captured Prince Mark, battered and still somewhat bloody about the face from the morning’s fistfight, was brought out of a dark doorway in the lower castle wall, and bound up in the place just vacated by Honan-Fu, between the altar’s stakes. The men who bound him, as soon as they were finished, began to fill their pails with water again.
At first Mark, having endured some hours of utter darkness in a dungeon, had to squint even in the faint light of the sunset sky and torches. Looking around him, he could see no sign that either of his Tasavaltan friends were also being held captive. That was faint consolation, but it was all he had.
There was only one face in the hostile throng that Mark could recognize, and he saw it without surprise, though with a sinking in his heart toward despair.
“Amintor,” he said through dry lips that were still caked with his own blood.
The military officer, obviously here in a position of considerable importance, returned the Prince a salute, gravely but silently. Mark noted that the aging, portly baron, once a fearsome warrior himself, was limping heavily on his left leg. Mark had no doubt that the limp was a result of their last encounter, two years earlier.