“Would you, my lady?” Zoltan cried with sincere relief. “I would be immensely grateful.”
Having reached that agreement, the two trudged on in silence for a time, proceeding through the woods along a well-trodden path at the moment empty of all other traffic. Presently Zoltan spoke again. “I wonder what the leaders of this Malolo clan are like.”
“It is impossible to tell until we meet them. Something like other minor lordlings elsewhere, I suppose,” Yambu added with faint distaste. The lady took a dozen strides in thoughtful silence before she added: “The village leader back there gave me the impression that he thought something strange had been going on in the clan’s stronghold for some time, at least a month.”
“He really said nothing specific on the subject. But that was the impression I received.”
Zoltan pondered this news in concerned silence.
“I wonder where everyone is?” the lady remarked suddenly in a different voice.
Indeed, the crude road which the two travelers were following had remained completely empty of other traffic, and this fact now began to take on an ominous aspect in Zoltan’s eyes. At each turn, as the rutted track wound back and forth through fields and forest, he kept expecting to encounter a farmer’s cart, a peddler, a goatherd, someone. But there was never anyone else in sight.
“Have all the farmers fled their lands? It should be time for planting.”
Yambu shook her head. “Not a good sign.”
In due time, and without ever meeting anyone, the two travelers came upon the house, which stood less than an hour’s walk from the lakeside village where they had spent the night. The hill, upon which the Malolo clan had chosen to build their manor, had long ago been denuded of trees, leaving only a myriad of ancient stumps. Within a low wall, the stone and timber of the house were dark, and the grounds around the house long uncared for and eroded. Even in the clear light of day, the whole establishment had a forbidding aspect to Zoltan.
Still no other people were in sight. And everything was silent except for the lowing of cattle, which seemed to be coming from outbuildings in the rear. The animals sounded as if they were in need of being milked.
The front entrance of the manor was protected by a small drawbridge, let down over a long-dry moat. The outer end of the drawbridge, now resting on the earth, had crushed a new spring growth of weeds beneath it. From this fact Zoltan deduced that the bridge must commonly be kept raised at least as much as it was lowered. Evidently the longstanding feud sometimes included direct assaults upon the strongholds of the chief participants.
However that might be, no one had bothered to raise the bridge today. Trudging on across its weathered timbers, the two travelers found themselves immediately before the manor’s great front door. Still they had not been challenged, or even observed as far as they could tell. They had seen no one since leaving the vicinity of the village. This absence of human activity caused them to once more exchange puzzled glances.
Then Zoltan shrugged, raised his sword hilt, and rapped firmly, loudly, three times on the door.
For a time, a period of time that became noticeably extended, there was no answer.
He was just about to knock again, and louder still, when at last a small peephole, heavily protected by iron grillwork, opened near the middle of the door. “Who is it?” a crabbed and cracking tenor demanded from within.
“Two pilgrims,” the lady on the doorstep answered, putting authority and volume into her voice. “The Lady Yambu and her attendant. We bring certain information that the chief of the Malolo clan should be glad to hear.”
There followed a protracted and suspicious silence. Zoltan supposed that the speaker inside he could not be sure from the voice whether it was a man or a woman was probably using the peephole to inspect the two on the doorstep.
“You can give me the information,” the voice said next, adopting now a different but still peculiar tone, somewhere between wheedling and mindless threat.
Yambu glared at the wooden barrier. “I do not conduct conversations through a door.” This time no one would have doubted that a queen was speaking.
Response from inside was immediate, in the form of a tentative rattling, as of a heavy doorbar in its sockets. Then came a brief silence as of hesitation, or perhaps a consultation carried on too quietly to be audible outside. Then the bar rattled again, this time banging decisively as it was thrown aside. Bolts clattered, and a moment later the left half of the double door was creaking open.
Standing before the travelers was one man, unarmed and not very large, his gray beard and hair in wild disarray, his watery blue eyes blinking in the morning sun. The man’s clothes leather trousers, leather vest over a once-white shirt were so stained and generally shabby that Zoltan was ready at first to take the fellow for a servant. Behind the entranceway in which he stood stretched the dim length of a great hall, where the littered condition of floor and tables, along with a few overturned chairs, suggested at first glance that a notable revel of some kind might have been held here last night.
The fellow who had opened the door looked at the Lady Yambu again, face-to-face this time, and bowed to her at once. “Welcome,” he said, in a somewhat more courteous tone than before. He stood aside. “Come in, my lady, come in.” But having said that much he stopped, seeming not to know how to proceed.
“Thank you, Sir Wizard,” said the lady dryly, entering the house. And Zoltan, turning his head suddenly to look at the man once more, could see that the rings on his stained fingers were marked with insignia of power, and were of a richness that certainly no menial servant wore; and that a chain of thin gold encircled the man’s wrinkled neck and went down inside his dirty shirt.
Yambu grabbed her companion by the sleeve and pulled him forward. “This is Zoltan of Tasavalta, who travels with me. Now may we know your name? Your public name at least?” It was a common practice for wizards of any rank to keep their true names unknown to any besides themselves.
Their reluctant host nodded abstractedly in Zoltan’s direction, acknowledging the introduction. Then he turned back to his more important guest. “Call me Gesner, Lady Yambu. May I ask, what is this information that you have?”
The lady told him briefly of the incidents in the village last night. Meanwhile, not waiting for any further invitation, she moved on into the great hall, the graybeard moving at her side. Zoltan followed. Seen at closer range, the disorder was more evident than ever. And it was older as if some feasting might have been suddenly interrupted many days ago, and only a minimum of serious housekeeping performed since. Leftover food in dishes had long since dried, and there was a smell in the air of stale drink and garbage. The ashes in the enormous hearth looked utterly cold and dead.
“And is that all, my lady?” The decrepit looking magician sounded disappointed. “I mean skirmishes like that are common. Why should you think my master would consider it vital news?”
Ignoring Gesner’s question, Yambu looked about her and asked him in turn: “Where is your master? You are certainly not the lord of the manor here?”
A different voice replied, speaking from behind her: “No, he’s not. I-I am here.”
Turning to a broad stairway that came down at one end of the hall, Zoltan to his surprise saw a somewhat overweight adolescent boy, two or three years younger than himself, dressed in rich clothing but looking nervous and incompetent and frightened.
At this point two girls, also well dressed, and both somewhat younger than the boy, appeared on the stairs above him. These girls, moving like people who were reluctant to advance but still more frightened of being left behind, edged slowly downward on the stairs, keeping close behind the youth who had spoken.
And the fat boy continued his own uncertain descent of the stairs. He paused, shortly before reaching the bottom, to repeat his claim, as if he thought it quite natural that his audience should doubt him. “I am
Bonar, the chief of Clan Malolo.” At his side he wore a small sword, hung from a belt that did not quite appear to fit.
Yambu, the experienced diplomat, surveyed the situation, and appeared to be ready to take the young man at his word, at least for now. Addressing him politely, she related again, with more detail, what had happened in the village last night, with emphasis on how the alarm raised by Zoltan had prevented harm. This time she included the visit of the mermaids and their warning.