Gaping stupidly at the bundle that lay there now, wondering how in the world it had ever managed to get in through the bars, Buvrai was able to recognize his brother’s voice, once more yelling at him from outside. But he was not able to make out the words.
Days ago, long before Talgai’s appearance, the prisoner had given up the idea of ever being rescued by anything other than some superb stroke of luck. In fact he had never had any real hope of other kinds of rescue; certainly he belonged to no gang, he had no friends-except Amy, who was jailed herself-interested enough in his survival to organize a jailbreak plot. In fact it was quite possible, or at least the prisoner sometimes thought it was, that some of his own supposed friends, certain people who had once been his partners, had connived to get him into this trouble.
But luck was different. The prisoner was always ready to count upon his luck to save him somehow. And so, when Talgai had appeared, Buvrai had allowed himself to begin to hope again. Until, of course, he remembered that his brother was a fool, had always been an unlucky fool, and in the nature of things always would be.
After staring uncomprehendingly for a moment at the object now lying on the floor of his cell, the prisoner realized that this must be luck, if it was anything. In another moment he had moved to seize and unwrap the bundle. In his hands, which were now suddenly trembling and uncoordinated, the object inside the canvas felt like a weapon; it felt like a wrapped-up sword.
Talgai was not only an unlucky fool, he was absolutely crazy to think that a sword, any kind of sword, would help him fight his way out of an iron-barred stone cell. But even as Buvrai’s mind acknowledged this, his fingers kept busy undoing the simple knots that held the canvas closed. There was, after all, nothing else for him to do.
Buvrai knew something of the Twelve Swords, but nothing had been further from his thoughts; and the true nature of this weapon failed utterly to dawn on him at first.
The small white symbol happened to be turned away when he first looked at the black hilt.
With some flickering hope, grasping for any faint indication that Talgai must have had more in mind than just arming him with a sword, Buvrai looked eagerly for some written message stuffed inside the canvas. But there was nothing of the kind.
Could Talgai even read and write? His brother wasn’t sure. It didn’t seem to matter.
Trembling between weeping and laughing hysterically at his brother’s folly, Buvrai clutched the black hilt in both hands and held the weapon up. In spite of everything, the sheer quality of the blade impressed him. He even had the feeling that he ought to recognize it, recognize it as something more than-
There came now a fresh outbreak of shouting outside in the square. The prisoner, Sword clutched hard in his right fist, hurried back to his window, grabbing a bar in his left hand to pull himself up so he could see better what was happening in the square. He was just in time to see his faithful brother being dragged away toward the guardhouse in the ground level of the prison building.
Muttering profanities against a host of gods and goddesses, he turned from the window again. Talgai had sent him no message, no help, beyond the bright steel itself.
Except that now Talgai’s brother was beginning to feel the sensation of magic in his hand. He was not a magician, but like many other folk he knew the feeling. Buvrai stared at the weapon in bewilderment.
Moments later, the prisoner was jarred out of his near trance by a noise at his cell door. Sword in hand, he turned to face it. Once more he wondered in a confused way, hoping against hope, whether some desperate attempt at rescue might after all be in progress, whether whoever was in charge of it had sent his brother to see to it that he was armed.
The key was being turned in his lock, and now his cell door was yanked open from outside. No rescuers stood there. Rather three guards, with their own weapons drawn, burst into the cell to confront the prisoner.
The faces of the three uniformed men were angry, but not in the least worried. They remained confident even when they saw the Sword Buvrai was holding. They no more recognized one of the Twelve than he had. Still, it was obviously a formidable weapon, on purely physical terms, and they stopped their advance at a respectful distance.
One of the guards tentatively reached out with his free hand toward the condemned man. “Come on, hand it over now!” he commanded in a threatening voice. Then he pulled his empty hand back quickly when Coinspinner’s keen point shifted in his direction.
The prisoner, who did know something of the art of swordsmanship, caused the bright point to trace a slow circle in the dim prison air. “Why should I?” he demanded.
“I said, why should I? What’ll you do if I don’t hand it over? Kill me?”
Even as Buvrai spoke, the realization was finally dawning on him that this gift that had come flying so strangely in at his window was, must be, a thing of powerful magic. How else could it have passed through the bars in such a way? And that magic, of course, was the reason Talgai, perhaps not so totally foolish after all, had given it to him.
And now at last the thought, the memory of the existence of the Twelve Swords of the gods, rose above Buvrai’s mental horizon. Not that Buvrai had ever seen one of those fabulous weapons before; but what else could this be?
What he had to worry about now, the prisoner thought, was the nature of this particular blade’s magic. Just what in all the hells was he supposed to do with it? He recalled that the Twelve Swords were very powerful, but what were their individual properties? Yes, he remembered now that they all bore little symbols on their hilts; but just now he was not in a good position to pause for a look at this one.
Desperately he brandished this blade of unknown potency at the three jailers, who were now advancing once more, a few centimeters at a time, scowling at him as they moved. He waited for the Sword’s power, whatever that might be, to take effect. Or for the rush of some unknown friends and allies down the corridor, to take his enemies in the rear. Or for-
What actually happened next was that his three enemies charged him simultaneously.
Their charge was not coordinated, and it would not have been a well-considered move, even had the weapon in the prisoner’s hand been no more than ordinary steel. The little cell lacked the latitude necessary for the attackers to bring their greater numbers into play effectively. As matters befell, at least one of the jailers handled his weapon very clumsily in the confined space, jabbing the man next to him, whose own arms involuntarily jerked sideways. Within the next moment all three of Buvrai’s enemies were wounded, one of them severely; the attack collapsed without the prisoner needing to strike a blow.
In another moment his attackers were retreating in confusion from the cell, the two who were less badly hurt dragging their more seriously injured comrade with them.
Despite the jailers’ confusion they did not forget to slam shut the door behind them, and the prisoner could hear the key being turned in the lock, confining him as securely as before.
What next? Bewildered as much as ever, his pulses pounding in his ears, the prisoner turned back to his window and once more looked out. At the moment, everything outside appeared discouragingly calm. In his state of dazed excitement, he forgot to examine his Sword’s hilt for symbols while he had the chance.
Standing close inside the locked door, he could hear the excited voices of his adversaries out in the corridor:
“No, someone fetch a crossbow!” And feet went scurrying away.
Magic throbbed in the prisoner’s hand. He could feel it, he had had enough experience with magic to do that. But he had no idea what, if anything, this power might be able to accomplish for him.
As Buvrai waited, feeling newly helpless, he gradually became aware of a sound like distant thunder. Where was it coming from? Somewhere far away. Or was it?
Outside the window, the sun shone; out there, out in the world, it was a fine day. But inside his cell things were different. Now the rumbling came again, and the prisoner thought that he could not only hear it but feel it faintly, coming up through the floor beneath his feet . . .