The man stood in an arrogant pose facing the stream, and he appeared to be inspecting Zoltan. That was a trivial task
and occupied him for only a moment. Then he turned away and his whole attitude changed abruptly. With the submissive air of someone approaching a superior, he made his way quickly along the bank until he stood just below the winged shape on its high rock. There he bowed deeply and addressed a few words to the being above him in some language that Zoltan was unable to understand.
Up on the rock there was a stir of movement in the depth of shadow. Now it seemed to Zoltan that two forms were there, one the size of a riding-beast, the other of a man, and it seemed to him that both of them were winged-but even beyond that, there was something grievously wrong, unnatural, in the shape of both.
Now speech came from the man-sized shape, which was standing, or crouching, slightly in front of the other one. It was answering the man below and spoke in the same tongue that he had used, and Zoltan listening could still understand nothing at all.
He thought that the voice of the thing on the ledge did not sound fully human. There was something too whining and catlike about it. But even so it conveyed a royal firmness.
The man standing on the riverbank replied, bowing repeatedly as he did so. He was working harder and harder to acknowledge his inferiority with regard to the other.
The two of them in their incomprehensible conversation moved across the edge of Zoltan’s consciousness like figures in some dim, cloudy dream. There was a roaring in his ears, and he had to struggle desperately to keep from fainting. All he could think about now was his own paralyzed body, his helpless situation.
Now that it was too late, Zoltan was able to understand clearly that for the past several days, from the time when he was inside the cave–from the exact moment when he had looked out of the cave and seen the girl-he had been under
some form of evil and dangerous enchantment. The spell had not only compelled him to come alone on this mad expedition, but for days it had prevented him from seeking help from Karel or anyone else who might have helped him.
Zoltan did not faint. Perhaps fainting was not allowed.
Now the strange man on the riverbank and the even stranger being who sat above him were debating between them what was to be done with Zoltan. He could tell, because they were both looking his way now, and the man gestured in his direction.
Again Zoltan tried to cry out, but he could not.
And now he saw, with a sense of nightmare, that a third being had joined their conference. This newcomer was a dim figure, a human male in hat and robes. He stood on the same bank of the stream as the other two, and he faced Zoltan from a position between and somewhat beyond them.
Now this third presence became more distinct, and even after all that he had seen already, Zoltan blinked. In the moonlight the newcomer appeared like a caricature, a sketch based on the popular idea of what a wizard should look like, even to the conical, wide-brimmed hat and the robe speckled with strange symbols.
The figure on the high rock and the man standing on the riverbank below each glanced once in the direction of the new arrival when he first appeared. But after that, to Zoltan’s surprise, they totally ignored him and went on with their mysterious dialogue as before. And the new arrival was content with silent observation.
Zoltan’s capacity for surprise was pretty well exhausted. It scarcely seemed odd to him at all when he found himself suddenly capable of understanding what the creature on the rock and the man below were saying to each other.
“… what I must have was lost,” the Shadowed One above was saying to the obsequious man, “eight years ago. I
am convinced now that you know nothing of that Sword’s whereabouts. Nor do I think that it is near this place. But it is possible that you will learn something about it; and anything you learn of it must be communicated to me as soon as possible.”
“I understand that, Master.” Again the man below bowed deeply. He hesitated, then added: “You can trust me to do so. Such knowledge would only be a burden to me-he whom I formerly served, the Dark King, would be able to testify to the dangers of that weapon, were he still alive-and I am thankful that you stand ready to relieve me of it, if it should ever come into my possession.” The man paused, then added blandly: “I am sure that you are aware of the dangers, and can deal with them.”
“The Dark King?” said the shape perched on the ledge, managing in the three words to express a great deal of contempt. “Be assured that / can deal with it, or with any Sword, and still accomplish my own purposes while doing so. If indeed you are worried on that score, Burslem, you may set your mind at ease.”
Burslem. Zoltan could not remember ever hearing the name before, and it meant nothing to him now.
“Then I think,” said Burslem softly, making obeisance once again, “that you are more than human.”
“Whether I am or not is a point of no particular importance, as far as you are concerned. Think of me either way you like.” But Zoltan, listening, thought that the creature, whatever it was, was pleased by the suggestion.
The man below raised pleading hands. “Forgive my ignorance, Master-but are you then one of the gods?”
This time the thing that sat above him was not pleased. “The creatures that you called the gods,” it whined in irritation, “were merely artifacts of the collective imagination of humanity.”
And meanwhile the silent observer in the background continued to do nothing but watch, and listen. It was as if he, like Zoltan, were paralyzed.
“They were real, the gods,” said the man on the river-bank. He was agitated, and again he made obeisance, as if trying to excuse the contradiction even as he uttered it. “Possessing a certain reality, surely. Consider the Swords-”
The smaller shape on the ledge above him waved something that emerged from the deepest darkness looking like a wingtip. “The gods could kill you, if that’s what you mean. They could do horrible things to you-to most people-if they bothered to try. But remember that I am of a much higher order of reality than were those you call the gods, and I can do worse.”
The man below went down upon one knee. “I shall not forget,” he murmured rapidly, his voice quavering.
“Let us hope that you do not. Now, I see no reason not to approve of your plan of action as you have outlined it. This one you have caught”-here again something like a wingtip came briefly out of shadow, gesturing in Zoltan’s direction- “and can hold for ransom. But that will not be enough. You should take other hostages, or take some other action of equivalent force against the ruling house of Tasavalta. It is my wish-my command to you-that they be neutralized, lest they eventually interfere with my plans elsewhere. I am going to be occupied elsewhere for a long time. For months or years, perhaps.”
“I hear and obey.”
There was more to the conversation, but Zoltan heard very little of it. His understanding of the strange language was failing again, the words becoming gibberish in his mind once more. His mind was reeling, and the murmur of speech that sounded only partly human was like that of the stream that
flowed around his ankles, going on and on and meaning nothing.
He was only vaguely aware when both of the shapes on the high rock departed, rising up together into the night sky. Together, the large and the small, they made a winged form of shadows that was much larger than a man, but still hard to see against the stars. Soon the composite shape was out of sight altogether.
Now, with that departure, it was as if some strain had been relieved, and Zoltan was free to become fully aware of his surroundings once again. He realized vaguely that at some point during the last few minutes the third figure, the silent onlooker, had disappeared.
He and the man named Burslem, who still stood on the riverbank, were alone.
Burslem was no longer bowing and scraping, but again standing arrogantly erect. Now he made a wizard’s gesture at the starry sky, then turned toward Zoltan and stepped into the shallow water. He was coming to look his prisoner over at close range. Even as he approached, there was a splashing in the water some meters behind him, a pale, leaping shape. And now the dark-haired girl, her misshapen body half silver and half shadow in the moonlight, was sitting on the bank behind the approaching magician.