Now-and there was no doubt at all about this-he could hear his enemies in the corridor quietly approaching the door again, mumbling their plans to one another. It was hopeless to try to understand what they were saying through the barrier. Quickly the prisoner slid away from the door, pressing his body into the one corner of the room where they’d have trouble hitting him if they shot through the little observation hole.
. . . and now, no possible mistake about it this time, the prisoner could feel the building shiver faintly, and see a fine trail of dust come trickling down from a new crack in the cell’s ceiling. Whatever was going on …
And now the jailers were unlocking the door again, undoubtedly ready with some new way to kill him.
The door burst open once more, and with the crash the prisoner, Sword raised, leaped back into the center of the room again. His only thought now was that at least he was going to cheat the hangman.
Even as the crossbowman, crouching centered in the doorway and flanked by swords on both sides, leveled his powerful weapon, the prisoner could feel the stone floor begin to sway beneath his feet. No mere rumbling this time. Things had gone beyond that.
The stone floor lurched violently just as the guard’s finger touched the trigger. The bolt, released with a harsh twang, shrieked past the prisoner’s right ear to shatter itself against the quivering stone wall beside the window.
The prisoner had lost his balance with the lurching of the floor, and he fell in the opposite direction from the bowman. Buvrai in falling managed to retain his grip on the Sword, and was lucky enough not to cut himself on the keen blade. Now he started to get to his feet again. The bowman in the doorway, crazily oblivious to everything but his duty, was reloading with mechanically moving hands. The prisoner was going to have to rush him, despite the leveled blades of the other guards-
And now the earth was thundering continuously beneath them all. Around them in the building wooden beams were breaking like trees in a windstorm, although there was no wind. A large stone crashed from the ceiling, narrowly missing the sergeant of the guard. More stones came after it.
That broke the spell. With hoarse cries the three jailers abandoned their duty and turned in unison to flee for their lives, leaving the cell door open. Up and down the corridor the screams of other prisoners resounded.
My luck has changed too late, too late, thought the prisoner with a condemned man’s detachment. More stones tumbled from above, driving him back away from the open door, one impact after another in front of him urging him back against the window where he could only grip the bars one-handed, for still he clutched his Sword. Too late to do me the least damned bit of good. I’m going to die in an earthquake instead of on the-
He had not quite time to complete that thought before, with a tremendous roar, most of his cell’s floor disappeared into a sudden cloud of dust and mortar. At the same time, greater masses than ever came down from above, hurtling and crashing past his head.
Still gripping the black hilt convulsively in his right hand, the prisoner locked both arms through the window bars. He clung to their support, felt the thick iron vibrating. When one of his feet was suddenly left unsustained, this grip preserved him from a fall.
He was still alive, even unhurt, at least for the moment.
And then for another moment, and another after that. With his eyes shut, he waited to be killed.
When several more moments passed and nothing violent happened to him, Buvrai opened his eyes again. Now the dust was thicker, making him cough and choke. Through its gray clouds the cries of the injured and the dying rose up as if to emphasize his luck.
Something stranger even than an earthquake was happening now. The space that had once formed the dank and shadowy interior of his cell had somehow become illuminated by the sun. In a few moments a breeze had cleared the dust a little. The prisoner could now see that he was standing on a short and narrow shelf of stone, all that remained of his cell’s floor. This shelf projected from a fragment of wall, the highest part of the building that was still standing.
Now the wind, moving with unaccustomed freedom across these newly exposed stones, blew still more of the dust away. The tall, jagged remnant of intact stonework was suddenly bathed in the full sunlight.
And now the man who had been a prisoner could see, in the middle distance, other buildings that had partially or completely collapsed as well. The entire center of town was changed, and drastically. To Buvrai’s ears drifted the sounds of a hundred or a thousand human voices crying out in shock, in pain and horror, uttering pleas for help.
Presently his own shock eased enough to let him move again. Carefully bending almost double, the man who had been condemned to die forced the sharpness of the Sword’s blade into a small crevice in the wall, just above the tiny ledge on which he stood. Now the black hilt served as a firm handgrip, on which he could lower his weight and swing himself down. The strong blade beat a little, but he could feel, in its springy strength, that it was not going to break. And now Buvrai’s extended toes, groping downward, found another foothold, in just the place where one was absolutely needed.
Slowly, moving one limb after another with numbed care, no longer really aware of any danger, he continued to clamber down the skeletal wall. Always he found the minimal handholds and footholds that were required. Always the Sword came with him, and twice again he dug it into crevices to provide himself with one more grip.
Presently Buvrai, Sword still in hand, was able to drop onto the top of a massive pile of rubble whose bulk had once represented most of the structure of the prison.
Once the former prisoner had reached that level, the rest was easy. In relative safety he scrambled down the rest of the way to the ground. Meanwhile the cries of the dying, the shocked, the injured, continued to go up all around him.
Dazedly ignoring these horrible sights and sounds, the once-condemned man began to walk away to freedom. Then he turned back, remembering something. The women’s wing of the jail, a one-story wing at the eastern end of the structure, had suffered comparatively little damage. He moved unsteadily in that direction.
He had not yet got clear of the wreckage of the main body of the prison before he heard the agonized howling of a great dog. In another moment Buvrai could see the huge gray beast, digging frantically into a pile of rubble, as if it were compelled to try to rescue whoever was trapped there.
Something about the sight caused it to remain etched into Buvrai’s memory. But he did not stop. Mechanically, stumbling over stones and broken timbers, he moved on toward the women’s wing.
The outer door of that low structure, unguarded now, was jammed almost shut. But when Buvrai pried at it with the Sword the door sprang open. Inside was weeping and wailing chaos, but little in the way of real injury. Luckily for the women, the upper stories of the main building had not collapsed in this direction.
Taking down a ring of keys from where they hung on a handy hook, Buvrai began to open inner doors. At first he hardly recognized Amelia among the little crowd of haggard females, garbed as she was in some remnant of an unfamiliar dress, and with her hair all matted and her face devoid of makeup. When he did spot her, the other women gave his Sword plenty of room in letting him reach her. Her eyes were shocked and blank, and she said nothing. The other prisoners flowed past, and most of them were already outside by the time he got Amelia to the door.
Once outside again, he turned away across the square, tugging Amy with him. Nothing was going to stop him now. But something did, before he’d gone six steps. It was the sound of his name, called in a low, distorted voice. The voice was unrecognizable at first, sounding like that of a dying man.
But it had called his name.
Still tugging the befuddled Amelia with him by her wrist, Buvrai looked for whoever had called him. Presently he almost tripped over the head of his brother. With only his head protruding from the mass of collapsed stones and timber, Talgai appeared to be hopelessly trapped, and Buvrai thought he must be on the brink of death.