Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

During the remainder of the day Rolf and Catherine were kept at work. Now and again the earth shook around their armored, buried rooms. The walls yielded a little and swayed with the moving of the earth, but were not crushed or broken. Rolf discovered that another of the outer rooms had been sealed off by heavy sliding doors.

Late in the day, Ardneh gradually ceased to issue orders. The sense of his presence became remote, while the demonic aura of his unimaginable opponent, that the humans had begun to sense, disappeared completely. Catherine and Rolf sat, waiting and resting amid their tools.

After a while, Catherine asked: “What will you do, Rolf, when the war is over?”

“Over?” From time to time he had enjoyed vague thoughts of victory celebrations, and once or twice he had meditated on some vengeance against the East. But such things still seemed as far away as ever.

Catherine added: “Ardneh has told us it will almost certainly be over very soon. Remember?”

“Of course.” He tried to visualize what victory would be like; the other possibility was hardly to be contemplated. “I can’t really remember what things were like before the war; at least, not before the East came to occupy us. I was only a child then.”

“You were telling me yesterday about your family, and how the seacoast looked near where you lived. In the Broken Lands.”

Rolf was silent for a time. “I can’t see myself just going back to farm the land my parents held. No, I’ll do something else. Some new work in technology, maybe. I don’t know where. Will you be with me then? When all the curses of the East are dead?” He hadn’t meant to come out with the words so bluntly, but now that they were out he had no wish to call them back.

Catherine looked at him, and began to give her answer with luminous eyes, and then her eyes looked past him. Rolf spun round barely in time to meet the soft-footed rush of the first wolf.

After struggling for a full day against Ardneh, Orcus broke off the fight temporarily and withdrew into the upper atmosphere meaning to recharge his depleted energies while he restudied the situation.

During the struggle he had learned several things about his opponent. For one thing, Ardneh was certainly formidable. For another, it was virtually certain that Ardneh would never pursue him. Orcus was definitely the more mobile, while Ardneh perhaps had an advantage in strength, as long as he was content merely to defend the little plot of land wherein his life was buried.

Brooding as he rested kilometers above that land, Orcus pondered the inky cloud of Ardneh’s defensive energies. To penetrate that concentrated block would probably prove more than even the Emperor of Demons could accomplish without help.

Lying atop the atmosphere, Orcus spread himself thin as a blanket, absorbing energy from the sun and from incoming cosmic particles. When he had recharged his strength somewhat he summoned up a minor demon to be his messenger. This one he sent to find Ominor, and convey to the man Orcus’s blunt orders. Ominor was to bring his human army north with all possible speed, encircle Ardneh, and do all that massed human strength could achieve in the way of digging him out of his defenses. While this effort was in progress, Orcus would renew his own assault. The Western army might well try to intervene, but it could not long sustain a pitched battle against Ominor, and no other kind of battle could now save Ardneh from destruction. ‘

A crushing victory for the East was near. After it, Orcus planned to enjoy agelong revenge against John Ominor.

The first wolf had gone down with Catherine’s arrow through its body, but not before Rolfs left forearm had been severely bitten. The two of them were fleeing now, feet pounding in the darkened corridors, behind them the howls of a pursuing pack. The humans cried for help as they ran; Ardneh closed doors against their pursuers were possible, but evidently could do no more. And the doors that could be closed were too few to effectively cut off the chase, though they afforded a temporarily life-saving delay.

“To the tunnel,” Rolf gasped. It was the narrowest place that he could think of. “We maybe able to hold them there.”

On the narrow stone ledge beside the stream, with his back to daylight, he was ready with his sword for the first red-eyed howler’s spring, and caught it on his point. Others came splashing in the stream beside him. Catherine hit one with a shaft, but before she could draw again a furry body had knocked her down.

Rolf threw himself into the water, his blade dividing fur and bone. Catherine fought with a knife drawn from her belt. Standing together in the bloodied water it seemed for a moment that they might hold…

Sunlight was darkened behind them. A bulk of fur that nearly filled the tunnel had entered it on all fours.

Rolf’s swordblade had wedged in a wolf’s skull and he strained desperately to wrench it free. Meanwhile the claws of the mountainous new beast were reaching for him from behind…

Not claws. The hand of an orange-furred giant closed round his ribs. He was lifted, swept backward, tossed into sunlight to land in mud and water with a great splash. He had just time to catch a breath before Catherine came flying to land almost in his arms. He pulled her head above water and she gasped for air.

Now, where was his sword – ?

What seemed like long minutes were necessary to locate the weapon, stuck in the bottom mud. But it was not needed sooner. Seeing into the shadowed tunnel from sunlight was effectively impossible, but sounds came plainly out: wolf-howls that keened in agony, and what sounded like words, muttered in a basso voice. There came out broken lupine bodies, drifting. Rolf had his sword back in his hand before a single live wolf emerged at last, in a dead frantic yelping run. He cut at and missed the speeding form, and listened to the sounds of its flight diminish in the distance.

Now something else was stirring in the tunnel mouth. A giant’s hand, covered with orange fur, and somewhere he had once seen the like before…

“Lord Draffut,” Rolf choked out, and sat down on the stream’s bank, with suddenly trembling knees. “We give you welcome.”

Catherine marveled greatly, and her awe increased when Draffut laid hold gently of Rolf’s mangled arm and raw, torn flesh became half-healed scar tissue at his touch.

“My healing powers are not what they once were,” the Beast-Lord rumbled. “Yet what I can give to humans I still give.”

“Lord Draffut, we thank you.”

“Ardneh has called me, and I have listened.” With his great hands he touched and began the healing of their smaller wounds as well. Then, with Catherine’s two hands held in one of his, he paused, looking down into her eyes as an adult might regard an infant. “I sense another matter of pain, that has been visited upon you. The work of healing that has already been begun, also.” -j

“We thank you again.”

“No, you have begun it yourselves.”

Rolf, feeling childlike in size and wisdom, exchanged looks with Catherine. “I do not understand.”

“Rolf. Have you not now bound yourself to Catherine, so that her life is to you as your own, and more than your own?”

Rolf still looked at her. “I have.”

“Catherine, are you so bound to Rolf?”

“I am bound.”

“Then from this day let your bodies be as one; no curse of the East can have power to separate you any more, whatever harm may otherwise be done to you.”

The Lord Draffut very shortly took his leave, saying that many humans a little to the south were in great need of him, and soon there would be even more. Ardneh’s mental presence meanwhile came fitfully to Rolf, with information.

“We are to rest now,” he announced. “Inside.”

He and Catherine were asleep, limbs twined on a spread cloak, when Ardneh’s next speech broke an hours-long silence. “Rolf. Catherine. Get up, gather weapons and food. It is time for you to leave me.”

Still half-sleeping, they arose in silence and began to dress. Almost immediately Ardneh spoke again: “You are to bear my last message to Duncan, and through him to all the West.”

Rolf came fully awake at last. “Last message?”

“The eastern army has arrived, and is encircling me. I will be destroyed in a matter of hours.”

Catherine ceased packing food into a bag and turned stunned eyes to Rolf, who groped for words but could not speak. Ardneh continued: “After you have memorized the message, you will follow the passage on the right just outside this room. You will find a door newly opened, leading to a tunnel that will bring you beyond the Eastern army.”

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