And now, from out there in the renewed sunlight, in anticlimax, came childish voices calling; shouting imperiously, and not in fear. Calling the names, one after another, of the three who waited in the cave.
Then silence, stretching on, one heartbeat after another.
Zoltan had a strong impulse to return the call. But somehow his throat was misbehaving, clogged with relief and lingering fear, and at first no sound would come out.
But no answer was necessary. Their trail must have been plainer than he had thought. Again the entrance of the cave dimmed slightly, with small, wavering shadows. Two more children entered, splashing.
“We found you!” It was a cry of triumph. Beth, as usual, had no trouble finding her voice or using it, and there was no indication that she had encountered anything in the least unusual on her way to the finding. She was a stout ten-year-old, inclined to try to be the boss of everyone in sight, whether or not they might be older than she, or related by blood to the rulers of the land while she was not.
Clamped firmly in the grip of one of her stout fists was the small arm of Stephen, Adrian’s younger brother.
Adrian and Stephen shared a certain similarity in face and coloring. But with that, even the physical resemblance ended. Already Stephen, no more than five, was pulling his arm fiercely out of Beth’s grip and beginning to complain that their three rivals in the game had cheated by coming into the cave to hide.
Zoltan grabbed small Stephen suddenly and clamped a hand across his chattering little mouth, enforcing silence.
Whatever had shaded the cave mouth before was coming back, just as silently as before, and more intensely. The shadow that now lay across the sunlight seemed deeper and darker than any natural shadow had the right to be.
Now even Zoltan’s eyesight assured him that this must be more than just a cloud.
Stephen, awed by the strange darkness and by the seriousness of the grip that held him, fell silent and stood still.
Presently Zoltan let him go, and drew his dagger from its sheath.
Now Adrian, with a grunt and a spasmodic movement, reared himself almost to his feet, then fell back on the sand. Elinor lunged after him, but one loud shrill cry had escaped the boy before she could cover his mouth with her hand.
An echo of that cry, in a different voice, deep and alien and perhaps inhuman, hideously frightening, came from outside.
And with that echo came a noise that sounded like a large number of riding-beasts splashing in the stream outside. Stones were being kicked carelessly about out there, and there were men’s voices, rough and urgent, speaking to each other in unfamiliar accents, not those of the Tasavaltan Palace Guard. Zoltan could not make out words, but he was sure that the men were confused, upset, arguing about something.
Now waves of sickness, almost palpable, came and went through the atmosphere inside the cave. The children stared at each other with ghastly faces, pale in the deep gloom. Zoltan had the feeling that the floor was tilting crazily under his feet, though his eyes assured him that the stream was undisturbed in its burbling course. The child in Elinor’s arms emitted another pitiful cry; she clamped her hand over his mouth more fiercely than ever.
Beth was standing stock still. Her eyes met Zoltan’s, and hers were wide as they could be. But she was biting her lip and he thought there was no sign that she was going to yell.
There was now almost no light left in the cave, and it was difficult to see anything at all, though by now his eyes had had time to adapt. Shadow, imitating rock, bulged and curled where once the entering sunlight had been strongest.
Something, thought Zoltan, is trying to force its way in here. Into the cave. To us.
And he had the inescapable feeling that something else was keeping the shadow, whatever the shadow represented, from forcing its way in.
How long the indescribable ordeal lasted he could never afterward be sure, nor could Elinor. Nor were any of the younger children able to give consistent estimates. But eventually, with renewed kicking of rocks and splashing by their mounts, the riders outside withdrew. The shadow moderated. But no component of the threat retreated very far. From time to time Zoltan could still hear a word or two of the riders’ talk or the sharp sound of a shod hoof above the constant murmur of the stream.
Beth moved. Almost calmly, though timidly, one quiet step after another, she went to Elinor’s side, where she sat down in the sand. Stephen continued to stand rigid, his eyes moving from Zoltan’s face down to the useless dagger in Zoltan’s hand, and back again.
And once more the sickness came, like an evil smell. It seemed to burrow in and grip, somewhere even deeper than the belly and the bones. A sudden realization crossed Zoltan’s mind: This must be the sensation that people describe, that they have when a demon comes too near them. Quite likely we are all going to die.
But once more the sickness in the air abated.
Adrian’s seizure was growing more intense, but so far Elinor was coping with it somehow. She and Zoltan had both seen some of his fits before that were as bad as this, or almost as bad.
Now a new feeling, curiosity, grew in Zoltan, until it was almost as strong as the fear he felt. Dagger still in hand, he got down slowly on all fours in the sand until he could peer out all the way into the restored sunshine outside the cave.
In the distance, slightly downhill from Zoltan and far enough away so that he could see only her head and pale, bare shoulders above a rock, there was a girl. Black-haired and comely, perhaps his own age or a little older, she appeared to be sitting or kneeling or crouching right beside the stream.
What caught Zoltan’s attention most powerfully was that the girl was looking straight at him. He was sure of it. Despite the distance, some thirty or forty meters, he thought that he could see her gray eyes clearly, and he was certain about the finger she had lifted to her smiling lips. It was as if she were trying to convey a message: Say nothing now. In good time. You and I will share great secrets, in good time.
The way her black hair fell round her ivory shoulders reminded him at once, and irresistibly, of a little girl he had known, years previously, when he had been but a small child himself. Zoltan had loved her, in the way of one child for another, though until this moment he had not thought of her for years. Somehow his first look at this older girl in the sunlight brought back the vision of the child. And the suspicion, the hope, began to grow in him that this was she.
With a start Zoltan became aware of the fact that Elinor was calling his name in a frantic whisper, that she must have been calling it for some time. He turned his head to look helplessly at his sister.
“He’s getting worse!” The words were uttered under her breath, but fiercely.
And indeed, the child’s fit was now certainly the worst that Zoltan had ever seen him undergo. Zoltan got to his feet, the girl outside temporarily forgotten.
There was a lull outside, a certain lightening of the shadow.
And then, suddenly, a confused uproar. Whatever was happening out there, the noise it made was for the moment impossible to interpret.
Then Zoltan understood. With a rush, new hoof beats and new voices made themselves heard in the distance. As if blown off by a sharp breeze, the sickness faded from the air, the darkness lifted totally. Abruptly there began the sounds of a sharp fight immediately outside the cave, the honest sound of blades that clashed on other blades and shields. To Zoltan’s ears it sounded like the soldiers’ practice field, but in his mind and in his stomach he knew that this was more than practice.
Now one man’s voice in particular, shouting powerfully outside the cave, was recognizable to them all. Zoltan’s knees, which until now had stayed reliable, went suddenly shaky with relief. “Uncle Mark,” he gasped.
Elinor looked back at him. “Uncle Mark,” she echoed, prayerfully.
Adrian, twisting his body and pulling with both hands, somehow tore his face free of her grip. “Father!” he cried out loudly, once, and fell into a faint.
ON the night following their temporary entrapment in the cave, Zoltan and Elinor slept soundly at High Manor, in their own beds. In contrast, it was well after midnight before me Princes Adrian and Stephen, and their playmate Bern, were returned to their homes in Sarykam, the capital city of Tasavalta. When Prince Adrian was put to bed in his own room in the Palace, the fit was still on him, though the fierceness of it had diminished.