Zoltan got past these additional complications without incident. As he entered the clearing, a man’s voice, its owner invisible in the darkness, called softly from somewhere off to his right. Zoltan thought that he could recognize the voice of the mercenary officer Koszalin. If this identification was correct, the mercenaries had come back from spending their pearl money sooner than expected. Or else something had happened to keep them from ever going as far as the nearest town.
Whoever the watchers at the edge of the clearing were, they must have been aware of Zoltan’s passage. But they made no attempt to stop or overtake him. In a few score running paces he had reached the back door of the manor.
Lady Yambu had evidently been listening for Zoltan’s return, for the moment he gave the agreed upon signal, the door swung open to admit him to the house.
Bonar and his sisters were waiting in the kitchen along with Yambu, and the clan chief and his sister Rose were openly relieved to see that Zoltan had returned. Violet, on the other hand, immediately expressed her suspicions that he had been treating with the enemy.
Zoltan denied this flatly.
“Then where were you?”
“If I told you I was visiting a mermaid, would you believe it? I’ll give you the details, if you like.”
There was silence; at least the accusation of treating with the Senones was not immediately renewed. Meanwhile Yambu, not bothering to ask Zoltan what success he’d had with his mermaid, hastened to bring him up to date. For whatever reason, at least some of the mercenaries, Koszalin among them, were here instead of enjoying their binge in town. Possibly their captain had decided that much more treasure could be extracted here, and had been able to enforce patience on his men. Whatever the reason, they had returned a little after midnight, to hammer on both doors of the manor, demanding what they called their fair share of the wealth.
Zoltan, mindful of possible flanking movements, started upstairs to check on the manor’s defenses there.
Somewhat to his surprise, dark-haired Rose volunteered to come with him, saying that he might need help finding his way about through the darkened rooms.
“I might well need some help. Are all the windows protected with good gratings?”
“I’m almost sure they are. Let me come with you and we’ll make certain.”
A few moments later, as Zoltan turned to make his way out of a small bedroom whose windows were indeed securely barred, he found Rose gently but firmly blocking the narrow doorway.
Her hand came to rest on his arm; her voice was hardly louder than a whisper. “I fed safe as long as you’re here. But you’re wearing pilgrim clothes, and that means you don’t intend to stay here very long. Doesn’t it?”
“Being a pilgrim generally means not staying in one place, that’s right.”
“There’s nothing for me here either, not really. With all the elders in the family dead, Bonar inherits the manor, the villages, everything.” Rose was looking at him through narrowed eyes; in candlelight she was far from unattractive. Suddenly he realized that she must have recently put on some kind of perfume.
Just now, thought Zoltan, was not the time for him to say that he had committed his thoughts and his entire future to someone else.
Now his attractive companion, still obstructing the exit, had him by the sleeve, which she fondled as if testing the gray fabric. “Sometimes I think I’d like to be a pilgrim, too.”
“Yes. What else is there? There’s nothing else for me around here.”
“The life of a pilgrim is not easy, either.”
He tried to put her gently aside. Rose grabbed him, and made her plea more openly than before. “Zoltan. When you leave here, take me with you.”
Zoltan was doing his best to frame an answer that would not provoke a crisis, when, to his considerable relief, another candle appeared down the dim hallway. It was Violet, in a hurry, obviously bringing some kind of news.
Violet looked at the two of them sharply, as if she suspected what her older sister was up to. Zoltan was beginning to believe that Violet tended to see everything in terms of jealousy and suspicion. She was an anti-Senones fanatic, always ready to suspect some betrayal in that direction. At the same time, Zoltan thought, she might be somewhat jealously attracted to him, too.
And in the privacy of his own thoughts he tried to imagine how outraged both women would be at the idea that any man they considered at all interesting could be as obsessively smitten as he was with a creature they considered little more than a fish.
But the message brought upstairs by Violet allowed little time for debate. The disgruntled soldiers had renewed their pounding on the rear door. It sounded this time like a serious attempt to break it down.
The upstairs seemed secure, as far as Zoltan could tell. So he hurried back downstairs. As he arrived in the kitchen he could hear the mercenaries outside, threatening now to burn the whole manor to the ground if their demands for more treasure were not met.
The doors themselves were truly strong, and for the moment seemed secure. Gesner, the claimed magician, was at least keeping his head well, even if not contributing much beyond that. He now assured the visitors that the manor’s sloping roof was of slate tiles. Most of the rest of the building was stone, and it would not be easy to burn. Gesner had now equipped himself with some serious-looking magician’s paraphernalia, and announced that he intended to do what he could with fire-preventing spells. And if a fire was started by anyone outside the house, he’d attempt to make the flames snap back at and burn the fingers that had ignited them.
Yambu approved this plan. Then she and Zoltan concentrated for the moment on organizing a more mundane line of defense, ordering servants to stand by in key locations with buckets of water. A well-filled cistern on the roof offered some prospects of success.
Bonar meanwhile had unlocked an armory on the lowest level of the house, next to the improvised mortuary, and was passing out weapons to his sisters and the remaining servants, or at least to those among the servants he could persuade to take them. Violet armed herself eagerly, and Rose with some reluctance followed suit.
Entering the arsenal himself, Zoltan selected a bow and some arrows from the supply available. Thus equipped, he ran upstairs again and stationed himself in a high window that gave him a good view of the rear yard. The fools out there were getting a fire going in the rear of one of the outbuildings, and a moment later Zoltan shot a man who came running with a torch toward the manor itself. The fellow screamed so loudly when he was hit that Zoltan doubted he was mortally hurt.
Another pair of mercenaries came to drag their wounded comrade away, and Zoltan let them do so unmolested, thinking they might be ready for a general retreat. The barn, or shed, or whatever it was, was burning merrily now. Fortunately it stood just outside the compound wall, and far enough from all other buildings that the spread of the fire did not seem to present an immediate danger.
Meanwhile the fire was giving him plenty of light to aim by, which put the attackers at a definite disadvantage. But Kosazlin’s shouts could be heard, rallying his men, and they were not yet ready for a general retreat. Taking shelter as best they could, they began to send a desultory drizzle of stones and arrows against the house.
When this had been going on for some time, Bonar, in a fever of martial excitement, entered the room where Zoltan was, crouched beside him and looked out. This window afforded the best view of what was going on outside.
“What’s burning? Oh, the old barn, that’s nothing much. How many of them have we killed?”
“None, that I know of. I hit one but I doubt he’s dead. Is the rest of the house still secure?”
“The ground floor is fine, I’ve just made the rounds down there.”
There was a sound in the hallway, just outside the bedroom, as of a servant running, calling. Then a brief scuffle.
Bonar and Zoltan both leaped up, leveling their weapons at the doorway. The door pushed open.
Zoltan found himself confronting a tall and powerful man who gripped a drawn Sword in his right hand. In the firelight that flared in through the open window Zoltan had no trouble recognizing his uncle, Prince Mark of Tasavalta.
ZOLTAN’S hands sagged holding the half-drawn bow, and the ready arrow fell from his fingers to the floor. For a moment he could only stare at this apparition blankly, and for that moment he was sure that it must be some kind of deception, that he was facing some image of sorcery, an effect of the Sword of Stealth or some other magical disguise and the apparition, if such it was, was lowering the Sword in its right hand.