Zoltan moved forward against an image of the Prince, his uncle, who now appeared to him with a Sword that might have been Shieldbreaker raised in a two-handed grip.
“Stay back, all of you! I warn you!” called out the one voice that was heard as three quite different voices.
But the three came on.
The wielder of the Sword of Stealth raised it, making a halfhearted and inexpert defense.
Still, it took courage for Ben to swing his staff against a Sword that suddenly looked like Shieldbreaker, gripped in the hands of Mark-Ben had not blundered, there was only a clang, as of hardwood on ordinary steel, and the Sword-holder, mishandling the weapon awkwardly, staggered back. Zoltan sprang forward to grapple with him, or her.
Zoltan in the next moment found himself seizing his own mother’s arm and twisting it painfully -somehow the experience was even worse than he would have imagined such a thing would be. It wasn’t only that he saw his mother. He felt her tender flesh, heard her soft breath, he knew-though no longer quite with certainty-that it was her. But he gritted his teeth and persisted while his mother struggled wildly against him, screaming. Then Ben’s hands clamped upon the foe, and the struggle was over.
There was a clanging thud, as of an arm’s length of steel falling to the rocky ground.
Pinned upright by Ben’s grip upon his arms was a shabby, hungry-looking figure, lean and ill-favored, a mere boy, younger than Zoltan and not as big or strongly built. The youth was sobbing now, as with relief.
On the earth at his feet, which were clad in worn country shoes, lay a black-hilted Sword. But only after Zoltan’s hand had touched the black hilt could he clearly see the small white symbol of a human eye upon it.
The Sword of Stealth is given to One lowly and despised Sightblinder’s gifts: his eyes are keen His nature is disguised.
“Who are you?” Ben was shouting at the boy. “What’s your name?”
The answer came between great gasping sobs. “Arn-finn.”
ARNFINN’S blubbering was not entirely the result of fear. A part of the cause was sheer relief, relief that the strain of the last few days was over. The responsibility of what to do with the terrible weapon he had been carrying had now been lifted from his shoulders. Whatever happened next, at least he was not going to have to support that oppressive weight any longer.
He was sitting where he had been pushed down on the rocky earth of the hillside, collapsed in defeat and futility, while close around him stood the three people who had thrown him down and taken the Sword away from him. And even now, in the depth of his fear, he was struck by what an oddly assorted trio they made. One was the biggest, strongest-looking man Arnfinn had ever seen; the second was an elderly lady dressed in pilgrim’s gray; and the third was a young man only a little older than Arnfinn, of sturdy build and rather ordinary appearance.
Or, more exactly, the young man’s appearance had been rather ordinary, until he had started to handle the Sword.
As soon as the young man picked up that magical blade, Arnfinn saw him changed into a rapid succession of other people. First came Arnfinn’s own father. Then a bully from the village of Lunghai, who more than once had made Arnfinn’s existence miserable; and after that a certain lady, really only a girl, the beauty of whose image, however false, could still make Arnfinn catch his breath. One figure followed another, each evoking either love or fear, or sometimes both. The sequence returned at last to Arnfinn’s father, who had been dead for years, and Arnfinn buried his face in his hands and wept again.
Meanwhile the giant and the old woman were paying little attention to whatever transformations the Sword might have been causing their companion to undergo in their eyes. Their attention remained thoughtfully fixed on Arnfinn.
When Arnfinn heard rather than saw the young man put down the Sword again, he dared to raise his face once more. These people had not killed him yet, and maybe they were going to let him live.
It was the gray-robed woman, her voice imperious, her accent aristocratic, who shot the first question at him: “What were you doing with this blade?”
“Nothing,” Arnfinn responded automatically, defensively, without thinking. That answer was almost the truth, but obviously it was not going to be satisfactory, though so far they were letting him take his time and think about it.
Using his sleeve, he wiped his face of tears and sweat, achieving with the rough cleansing a kind of fatalistic calm. “I brought it here to town to try to sell it.”
“Brought it from where?” the young man demanded.
“From my home village. It’s a place called Lunghai. About three days walk to the west of here.”
“And how came this Sword into your hands?” This was the giant, anger still rumbling dangerously in his voice.
Arnfinn continued the slow process of getting himself under control. “Some children of our village found this weapon-they said they found it under a bush, I suppose they were telling the truth but I don’t know how it got there-and they were playing with it. Frightening everybody, and-”
“And so you took it away from them.”
“Yes. For their own good. The gods know what trouble they might have caused with it.” Arnfinn looked up, appealing to the three grim faces. “I intend-I intended to share the money with them, and with their parents, when I had sold the Sword. Their parents were very much afraid. They just wanted to be rid of it.”
Anger still threatened in the huge man’s voice. “Who did you think you were going to sell it to?”
Arnfinn gestured toward the water. “I had heard there were good wizards living on the islands in Lake Alk-maar, that’s what all the people in my village believed, though our people seldom came here to Triplicane. I didn’t mean to do any harm.”
“What harm do you think you’ve done?” This was from the young man. Despite his youth he somehow sounded more like a leader than either of the others did.
Arnfinn shifted his position on the rough ground. He drew in a deep breath and heaved it out again. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”
There was a pause. Then the woman asked him: “How long have you been here, then?” And the young man at the same time: “What kept you from going through with the sale?”
Now words poured out of Arnfinn in a rush. “I’ve been here for days. I’ve lost count how many. When I got here-well, I was carrying the Sword, and so naturally everyone in the town acted strange every time they saw me. The gods only know who or what they saw, or thought they saw, when they looked at me. If there’s any way to turn the power of this weapon off, I don’t know what it is. And of course I didn’t dare to leave the thing anywhere, for fear of losing it. I hardly dared to set it down. So-I haven’t had much actual contact with the people here. I’ve been sleeping out, up there on the hill.”
“And you’re saying,” the lady asked him, “that you never actually tried to sell the Sword to anyone?”
“That’s right. I never showed it to anyone, or talked about it.”
“I was afraid to try, ma’am. As soon as I arrived in town, I began to hear that there were strange things going on out on the islands. I could see that there were quite a few soldiers in the town and they had taken over the docks. And there were strange rumors about Honan-Fu and what might have happened to him. The people I talked to were all worried.”
“What did these strange rumors say, exactly?” Arnfinn managed a shrug. “That there were new rulers out there on the island, and they were evil. One man had heard a story about huge flying shapes, reptiles, demons, the gods know what, dropping out of the sky at night over Honan-Fu’s castle. And there were stories of how the new rulers had done bad things-even kidnapped a few people from villages along the mainland shore. I didn’t want to sell the Sword to anyone like that.”
The giant said: “Fortunate for you, you didn’t try, I’d say. Well, you won’t have to worry any longer about selling the Sword. It’s in good hands now.” Arnfinn nodded hastily.
Zoltan looked at his two companions, then back at Arnfinn. He said with authority: “You’ll be compensated for it someday. You and the children of your village who found it for you. If your story about how it came into your possession turns out to be true.”