The lady’s manner, more than the content of what she said, had a soothing and reassuring effect upon the frightened inmates of the manor. Zoltan got the impression that they were beginning to be willing, perhaps irrationally, to trust her now, that these representatives of the Malolo clan were looking for someone they could trust.
Before Lady Yambu had finished relating her story, the young people had all completed their descent of the stairs and were surrounding her and Zoltan in the great hall. The two girls, who were Bonar’s sisters as Zoltan had suspected from the first, were named Rose and Violet. Now, while Gesner stood back frowning silently, the three family members bombarded the two visitors with questions.
What had Yambu and Zoltan seen on the other side of the river? What evidence was there of military activity in that direction? On these points the travelers could be reassuring, at least in a negative sense. They had not traveled on the far bank, and had not seen a living soul over there for several days. Nor had either of them observed anything at all military in that direction, unless last night’s disturbance at the fishing village was to be counted. Zoltan and Yambu now related that story again, and hearing it seemed to reassure their hosts slightly.
There was a brief silence.
“What is wrong here?” Yambu asked the young people finally. “It is plain that this house has been engulfed by some crisis. Where are all the older members of this family?” ,
The inhabitants of the manor looked at one another. Then Bonar, nervously clenching his white hands together, suddenly blurted out what might have been the beginning of an answer: “We haven’t been out of this house for days. For a good many days. Not since that man came here asking questions.”
“What man was that?” Yambu inquired patiently.
“A traveler. Someone of good birth, I’m sure. He called himself Chilperic, and at first we had hopes that he was going to help us. I think he was I don’t know, a soldier of some kind. He claimed to be some kind of distant relative of ours.” The speaker looked around at his companions as if for confirmation. They nodded vaguely.
“And what questions did he ask?”
Bonar and his sisters looked at each other in a silent struggle.
“But where are your own soldiers?” Zoltan demanded abruptly. Since these people were so worried about something, and since they were supposed to be engaged in a permanent feud with some other clan, it puzzled him all the more that he had not seen a sentry or armed attendant of any kind since his arrival. “Surely you have armed retainers of some kind about?”
Gesner spoke up quickly. “Of course we do. They are all on watch, at the moment.”
“Most of them are out on patrol just now,” said Rose, the older sister, speaking simultaneously with the wizard. Rose had fine dark hair, a face that was pleasant if somewhat long, and a figure that Zoltan under less tense conditions might have found distracting. She had come up behind her brother Bonar, and with a gesture that might have been meant as a warning laid her hand upon his arm.
Zoltan and Yambu exchanged glances.
Evidently the former queen and skilled diplomatist thought it was best to let the subject of soldiers drop for the time being. She looked at Bonar and said: “Young man, the people in the fishing village mentioned a different name than yours when they spoke to us of the chief of the Malolo.”
Bonar turned paler than ever. Only the shabby magician responded verbally to the implied question. “Yes,” said Gesner wearily. “Yes, no doubt they did.”
An awkward silence ensued, as if the inhabitants of the house were on the verge of offering some explanation, but none of them quite dared to try.
Zoltan decided at last that diplomacy had had its chance, and he might as well attempt a blunt interrogation. “Chief Bonaris that what we should call you?”
“It will do.”
“Then, Chief, you obviously have some serious problem here. Is there some way that we can be of help?”
“We do need help,” Bonar admitted at last, after having looked again at both his sisters and found none. His pale and pudgy hands were held together in front of him, and he gazed down at them as if wondering how he might be able to get the intertwined fingers apart again. “We’ve had … Well, a terrible thing has happened.”
“I am not surprised to hear it. Now I invite you to tell us what it was,” said Yambu, in a soft and yet commanding voice.
After much continued hesitation, the four members of the household, including Gesner, decided to hold a meeting among themselves. Having first remembered to make sure that the front door was securely closed again and locked, they withdrew to another room, with some apologies, leaving Yambu and Zoltan alone. Soon, from the other room, their muffled voices could be heard, rising now and then in argument, as they debated some matter earnestly. Zoltan and Yambu paced about, looking at each other and shrugging their shoulders.
At length the four, with the air of having come to an agreement, rejoined their visitors in the great hall. Then Bonar, the new chief of the clan, with Gesner at his back, silently motioned Yambu and Zoltan to follow him into an adjoining corridor. There the chief drew a key from inside his shirt and unlocked a door leading to a descending stair.
Zoltan went down cautiously, a hand on his sword hilt. A few moments later Bonar was escorting him and Yambu into a large vaulted room on a windowless below ground level of the huge house. The door of this room too was doubly locked before they entered it, and it was guarded on the outside by a couple of elderly people who glared suspiciously at the intruders, and whom Zoltan had no trouble identifying as faithful old family retainers. There were a few of the same type back home at High Manor, where he had been born.
As the group of visitors filed into the vault one of the attendant servants held up a torch, revealing that they were in a windowless chamber almost as large as the great hall above.
There was a faint perception of magic in the air, and for a moment Zoltan thought that the dozen or so fully clothed people who were lying stretched out on the tables that almost filled the room were all sleeping some enchanted slumber but only for a moment. Then he realized that all of them were dead.
Arrayed before the visitors, with some effort at neat arrangement, were eleven corpses Zoltan quickly took an exact count. If this was a collection of combat casualties, it fit the usual pattern in that young males were in the majority. All the dead were fully clothed adults, all of them laid out on tables, or, in some cases, biers improvised from smaller furniture, chests, and chairs.
A faintly sweetish aroma hung in the air, along with the impression of simple magic in operation. Zoltan, who was no magician but who had seen more magic in his young life than many people ever saw, suspected strongly that some preservative spell was in action here, and also that the spell was neither very well designed nor very well cast. These bodies were going to have to be buried soon, or otherwise permanently disposed of.
Judging by the expression on Lady Yambu’s face, and the sidelong look she cast at Gesner, she evidently shared Zoltan’s thoughts. He supposed the wobbly preservative spell was the work of Gesner, who did not exactly give forth an aura of competence.
Violet, Bonar’s younger sister, had begun sobbing quietly as soon as she entered the room of death. With dull brown hair and a thin body, Violet was plainer than Rose, and also had a fiercer look.
“What happened?” Lady Yambu asked, turning from the bodies to stare curiously at the young chief of the clan.
“We fought.” Bonar gestured helplessly at the carnage before him. “It was about a month ago.”
“Fought whom? Only among yourselves?”
“Of course not.” The youth’s cheeks reddened and suddenly he looked sullenly angry. “Against the damned Senones. The clan of scoundrels across the river. Our ancient enemies.”
The lady looked at the crowded tables. “Would it be fair to say that your enemies won that fight?”
“I think not.” Now the lad’s pride was stung. “We killed as many of them as they of us.”
“And where did this fight take place?” asked Zoltan, walking now between the rows of tables, looking at first one and then another of the bodies. As he inspected the dead more methodically he realized that each of them had been slain by a single thrust, through the torso, from some broad-bladed weapon. No other wounds of any kind were in evidence on any of the bodies.