But there was an even worse sight than the face of his old enemy for the Prince to see. Despairingly, Mark identified the hilt of Shieldbreaker, visible in the well-formed fist of his still-unknown chief enemy.
The occupant of the throne now leaned toward him slightly. His harsh voice was completely strange to Mark. “You are another man, Prince, to whom I intend to speak at some length. I believe that we have several matters of some importance to discuss. But alas, conversation must wait. Unless you have something you urgently wish to tell me now.”
The first bucket of water splashed on Mark. He shivered involuntarily, though at first the wet chill felt good on his cracked lips and swollen face.
“An indefinite time of discomfort awaits you, Prince. But at least the ice will not be eternal; sooner or later your time in the cold lake will be interrupted. Draw comfort from that fact if you can. But remember that how long you are allowed to spend out of your bath will depend upon how entertaining and informative I find your conversation.”
The second pail of water splashed over Mark, and he felt the intense, magical cold of it, deeper even than the chill of ice, and fear and understanding began to
grow. Meanwhile the handsome-nay, beautiful man on the throne was studying him carefully. As if he wanted to watch the details of the freezing process, or perhaps as if Mark reminded him of someone that he had known long ago.
Mark did not utter another word. His captors did not insist. The Ancient One exchanged a few words with Amintor. And soon the two of them were watching Mark, pale and with his teeth chattering, being lowered inside his own maturing icicle to a place in the deep lake beside the wizard Honan-Fu.
WITHIN a few minutes after Lady Yambu had released her dragon from the window of the inn, she and her visitors brought their conference to an end. It was mutually agreed among the three of them that the less they were seen together, the better.
Leaving the inn by the back door, Zoltan and Ben at once turned their steps uphill and inland, climbing the gullied, unpaved alley behind the inn toward the edge of the settlement, which was hardly more than a stone’s throw away.
Their chosen alley led them to an almost deserted street, and the street in turn, still climbing uphill, passed out of town and in a short distance had become little more than a narrow footpath. Turning to look back as they passed the town’s last scattered buildings, they found themselves well above most of the settlement they had just quitted. There, standing out among lower and shabbier roofs, was the inn, one of the few two-story buildings. On the upper veranda that ran along its inland side, easy to see from here, was the place where Yambu was to leave a visible signal whenever she wanted another conference with them.
As the two men continued hiking uphill along the path, they debated whether they were going to be able to trust her or not. Zoltan, who knew comparatively little about Yambu, voiced his suspicions. Ben shared these doubts to some extent, but he was more optimistic. He could remember more about the lady than her public reputation of years past.
“She was your enemy then, and Uncle Mark’s,” Zoltan objected. “Why should we trust her now?”
“Aye, I know she was. But there are enemies and then there are enemies. And whether it was wise or not, we’ve already made the decision now and it’s a case of trying to work with her. We’ve no other choice that makes any sense at all.”
Zoltan had to agree, however reluctantly. The alternative to staying on the shores of Lake Alk-maar and trying to help Mark would be to leave at once for home. Tasavalta was months away, by riverboat until the cliffs were reached, and above them by foot or riding-beast. Doubtless more months would pass before they would be able to return with help. A slightly better choice than that might be for one of them to head back alone -Zoltan would probably be the swifter traveler-while the other one waited here by the lake, keeping an eye on developments as well as possible.
Of course when the Princess in Tasavalta failed to receive a winged courier from Honan-Fu bearing word of her husband’s safe arrival, the Tasavaltans would begin to be alarmed and would take action anyway. Their first efforts at probing the situation, by winged scouts and by long-distance magic, would be under way long before either Zoltan or Ben, hurry as they might, could bring home word that help was needed.
Sending a message from Triplicane directly by a flying beast would speed up the Tasavaltan mobilization enormously. Ben had hoped to find some such creatures available at the docks, but Lady Yambu had assured him there were none.
Zoltan asked now: “What was that business of hers with the little dragon?”
“I don’t know.”
“A dragon’s not something our people in Tasavalta would be likely to use, or our allies either. More likely our enemies would use one-have you any hope that anything will come of it?”
Ben trudged on. Eventually he said: “I don’t know that either. If you decide to trust someone, then trust them. Or don’t. Half measures only do harm.”
Scouting yesterday among these hills with Prince Mark, trying to find some native willing and able to tell them what had happened on the wizard’s island, Ben and Zoltan had observed an abandoned hut or two, with tattered nets of thin string still stretched outside, suggesting that the dwellings had once been inhabited by fowlers. These huts were now the objective of the two men, on the off chance that there might possibly be someone still living in the area with a flying messenger that could be bought or hired-or stolen-and might make it all the way to Tasavalta in a matter of a few days.
As he went up the hill behind Ben, Zoltan was thinking gloomily that the odds of his uncle still being alive were not good, and they were worsening by the hour. He was also wondering if he, being somewhat faster, ought to suggest that he run on ahead of Ben and search. The trouble with that idea was that neither of them were quite sure where they were going. The supposed fowlers’ huts had been on this long and uneven hillside somewhere….
Ben, who was still trudging a little in advance, stopped so suddenly that Zoltan almost ran into him.
“What-” Zoltan began, and then fell silent, staring past Ben’s shoulder.
An easy bowshot up the hill, Prince Mark, dressed just as they had seen him last, was standing looking down at them.
Mark was poised alertly just off the nearly overgrown path where it ran between two pine trees. Even at the distance, Zoltan could see the marks of the morning’s fight on the Prince’s face, but he gave no sign of having been seriously hurt. As his nephew and his old friend stared up the slope at him, momentarily too shocked for speech, Mark raised a hand in a gesture that was more a signal of caution than a wave.
Ben started uphill again, almost at a run. And was stopped after only two or three strides by a sudden pushing gesture of Mark’s palm.
The Prince, his voice calm, called down to them: “Wait. Not now. Wait for me to come to you.”
And then he stepped off the trail and disappeared into the nearby trees.
Ben and Zoltan turned stunned faces to each other. Then, facing uphill again, they stood waiting, still speechless with surprise.
Hardly had they begun to recover from their shock when they caught sight of the Prince again, as Mark became briefly visible through the trees a little way up the slope. He was still moving away from the path and following a course that angled down the hill. He shot a glance downhill and saw Ben and Zoltan watching him. Again Mark paused, just long enough to send them a reassuring wave. He was considerably closer now, and Zoltan could see the marks of the morning’s fight more clearly.
And again, as soon as Zoltan and Ben started toward the Prince, he called out sharply to them. “Wait, I told you! Have patience, and I’ll be with you shortly.” Again his tall form moved out of sight, still on his angled downhill course.
Groaning with a delayed sensation of relief, Ben began to mumble curses. In a moment he had slumped down to rest on a small rock outcropping. But a moment after that he was on his feet again, gazing with impatient curiosity toward the place where Mark had most recently vanished. There was no one to be seen there now.
The two men waited. They looked uphill and down. Heartbeats of time stretched out into minutes, but Mark did not reappear.