Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Rolf found his tongue. “Catherine can take your message out, Ardneh. I will stay on and fight with you. You still need help. And -and it cannot be hopeless yet! I can help you devise some new -”

“No.” The imperturbable calm of Ardneh’s voice only made the meaning of his words the more unreal. “The next full scale attack of Orcus will destroy me, and it is not many hours away. And both of you must carry my message. We must make sure that it gets through. I no longer have any other means of communication with Duncan. You must impress upon him the importance of my final message, which is this: he will soon face the choice of either saving his army by retreat, or taking a grave risk of its destruction by trying to save me. He must choose to save the men. They can and will fight again tomorrow. I am finished now. I must serve as I was meant to serve.”

“I… Ardneh, is there no other way?”

“You can no longer give me meaningful help in any other way. I have given you your orders now. I will repeat the message several times before you leave me.”

“You will not need to repeat the message, I understand it.” Rolf exchanged helpless glances with Catherine. “If those are the orders you insist upon, we must obey them. But…”

Catherine broke in, shouting angrily at the ceiling. “Ardneh, it is not right foryou to be so calm. No human being could be so, in your place. With human beings, there is always a chance. Duncan and our men can beat theirs in a pitched battle, if they must. I feel it!”


Rolf cried: “Ardneh, do not surrender!”

“I will not, but Orcus with Ominor’s army will be strong enough to overcome me. Now tell this to Duncan also, and spread it throughout the West: in the future, men must not make gods of finite beings like myself.”

“Gods,” Rolf repeated vacantly. He had heard the word before, but it seemed to have no connection with what was happening now. “Ardneh, tell us what to do if you are killed.”

“Bearmymessages to Duncan. Then live andfight for your humanity. And tell the army not to look back on its retreat. That is important too.”

Rolf went on arguing and pleading for a time, though Ardneh no longer answered. Then Catherine, tears standing in her eyes, was thrusting a pack at him, and his sword, and was pulling him by the arm. At first Rolf moved dazedly, allowing himself to be led like some stunned prisoner. But when they had reached the new door and passed into the outer tunnel Ardneh had mentioned, he put Catherine gently behind him and took the lead.

The new passage was crude and narrow, rough-walled, so dark that they must grope their way. From somewhere behind came the sliding closing of a heavy door. Now Ardneh’s presence was very nearly gone from Rolfs perception.

After a hundred meters or so, the passage widened; and shortly its walls were no longer rock, but hardened earth. Yet it continued to twist on a long subterranean course. At last the slope they walked began gradually to tend upward, and there came to them warmer air, with the subtle smells of vegetation.

Their eyes strained ahead for light, but there was none, not even the tenuous sky-glow of a cloudy night. “We must be still within the blackness,” Rolf whispered softly.

The walls of the tunnel grew further apart, then abruptly fell away altogether. Rolf could not tell how Ardneh had arranged the opening, or prevented the enemy from getting into it. But there was no doubt that Ardneh’s messengers had reached open air; Rolf felt a tuft of grass now brush against his leg.

Ardneh had said that the tunnel would bring them above ground behind the Eastern lines, outside the noose that Ominor had drawn around Ardneh’s emplacement. Under Orcus’s orders, the Eastern army had evidently dared to enter Ardneh’s zone of darkness; Rolf and Catherine could now hear the mutter and murmur of a great number of men working some distance away, the crunching and scraping of innumerable digging tools. The noise came from somewhere behind them as they faced away from the tunnel mouth from which they had just emerged.

Reaching behind him to hold Catherine’s left hand in his own, Rolf led on, away from the sounds of digging. The darkness at first remained absolute. Soon he paused; at a few score meters’ distance there came the sound of men in a column tramping past. The marchers were led by a chanting wizard, who bore aloft a kind of witchlight that illuminated a few square meters of the land that Ardneh had interdicted from all light; at Rolf’s distance, no more than a blurred blue spark was visible. After the wizard passed, came the sound of feet in route step, an occasional chink of tools or weapons, and a hushed fragment or two of Eastern talk. Weapons ready, Catherine and Rolf stood motionless until the spark had faded to invisibility and the column was out of earshot.

Moving on, they soon found the ground sloping downward again beneath their feet. Now Rolf put each foot forward with, extra caution.

At last one of his feet found water.

“The river,” Catherine whispered in his ear.

“It must be.” But, he thought, the river wound around Ardneh, so to find it was little help in judging directions. Anyway, compass directions in themselves would be useless until he knew where Duncan was.

“Let us try to wade it,” he whispered. If it came to swimming they might face the question of leaving their heavy metal weapons behind. Easing his way into the water, Rolf made sure to note immediately the direction of the current; if they should get to floundering and swimming in midstream, it wouldn’t do to get turned around and come out unknowingly on the bank from which they had gone in.

Good fortune attended the crossing, however, through water nowhere more than waist deep. On the new bank, the grass was thicker, and the earth seemed flatter, less disturbed. When they had advanced a hundred meters beyond the riverbank, the sounds of tramping, working men were no longer audible. The normal summer sounds of bird and insect were absent too. Silence seemed complete.

Rolf, still leading, stopped so abruptly that Catherine stepped on his heel. Suddenly there had become visible to him the glimmering beginning of bright sunlight, a tentative vision caught first with one eye only, like something manufactured by the sight-starved nerves inside his head. But when they had moved forward a few more steps, there appeared a splintered, fragmented scene of daylit grass and sky.

Before emerging from Ardneh’s night, Rolf called a halt to rest and wait for the setting of the sun. He and Catherine remained where they were until the dimming of the light ahead showed that natural darkness was falling. Then they moved out from under the mountain-sized shadow beneath which Ardneh hid; they had not gone a hundred meters under the open sky before a bird came drifting down on silent wings to greet them.


World Without Ardneh

“We have messages for Duncan, from Ardneh,” Rolf told the bird at once. “Can you guide us to him, quickly?”

“Whoo. It will take yoouu half the night to reach his camp. I had better bear your words.”

“The army is still so far? Ardneh needs his help.”

“They were closer this morning, before the day’s fighting began. Tonight Duncan retreats. Some of us Feathered Folk were sent to watch for youuu.”

Rolf drew a deep breath. “Yes, you had better bear Ardneh’s words. We will follow as quickly as we can.” Rolf repeated Ardneh’s injunctions, word for word as closely as he was able. “And now, which way does Duncan’s army lie?”

The bird rose briefly out of sight, then dropped back to earth and pointed with one wing. “There, only a little way, and youu will meet the ground patrol whoo cared for me through the day. I will tell them first that yoouu are here, then carry Ardneh’s messages on.”

With that the bird was gone. Rolf was relieved to make contact with the foot patrol of eight men after only another hundred meters’ cautious advance. From them, he and Catherine soon learned that Duncan’s efforts to break the Eastern ring round Ardneh’s redoubt had been fierce but unsuccessful.

“I think you had better take us straight to Dun-can,” Rolf told the patrol’s leader. “We can give him more information than you are likely to gain, stumbling about here without your bird.”

The officer was opening his mouth to answer when the night around them erupted with the clash and yells of ambush. The clutch of sudden terror was no less sharp for being an old acquaintance. Rolf drew and crouched low, trying to see the enemy outlined against the sky. Men rushed and struggled around him, and for the moment he could not distinguish foe from unfamiliar friend, and he did not strike.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred