Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Amid the grunting and shouting there came a single high-pitched scream, from what direction he could not be sure. He called out Catherine’s name. The only answer came from death, singing to his right and left in invisible blades. Rolf threw himself down, rolled away in the grass, and battle-noise swept past him.

The pounding and scurrying of feet dwindled into silence. Suddenly, inexplicably as could happen in a night action, he found himself apparently alone. Cautiously he rose into a crouch, probing the silent night with all his senses. In the middle distance faint moonlight shone on a crawling form that might be Catherine’s, half-hidden in tall grass. Rolf moved in that direction, stepping slowly at first, then with a short rush when the form seemed to waver and vanish in the light of the deceptive moon.

At the spot where he thought the figure had been, he called Catherine’s name again, softly, several times, but there came not so much as a rustle of grass in response. He searched in a small circle, but there was no trace of anyone.

Rolf realized that with every passing moment the chance of finding her here grew more remote. If she was still alive, she must be moving on ahead of him toward Duncan, in the direction the patrol had started to take before the ambush. In that direction Rolf’s duty also urged him. He took his bearings by the stars and at last moved on alone. Somewhere off to his left, men brawled with steel again and then were silent. Rolf kept his weapon ready and held to his course.

Throughout the rest of the night he maintained a steady progress. Once he came upon a bird lying in the moonlight, dead since the day before most likely, the great wings broken and torn, probably by reptile claws, and the wide eyesockets emptied. Rolf could not tell if it was a bird he knew; it might have been Strijeef for all that he could tell.

At dawn Rolf could see, but not identify, groups of people in the distance, in several directions. He took cover; fortunately the grass here was tall enough to hide him as he crawled. Well behind him now, Ardneh’s dome of darkness, impervious to sun, still bulked high against the clear sky. Rolf saw numbers of reptiles in the distance, but all appeared to be occupied with matters of more moment than his solitary passage. When a rise of ground shielded him from the distant people, he stood and walked again.

Near the middle of the morning he knew a great, heart-numbing shock as he came upon Catherine lying dead in bloody rags. But when he turned the body over he saw it was that of some long-haired Western boy of slender build. Quivering in all his limbs, Rolf had to sit down. But at once renewed hope began to grow. Perhaps she was somewhere just ahead of him, or close behind. They might find each other even before they reached the Western army.

Around noon Rolf had to make a long detour to get round a large Eastern foot patrol. He hoped Catherine had retained her waterbottle. Most of his own was gone by now. The sun beat down into tall windless grass. Only now and then came the ghost of a breeze, cooling his face.

Shortly after he got past the Eastern patrol Rolf came in sight of what he took to be Duncan’s rear-guard. In another hour of cautious pursuit he had gained enough ground to be sure; the long, thick, twisting column of the retreat was plainly in sight now, going up a gradual rise of land toward the southwest. The retreat was still heading directly away from Ardneh’s shadow-dome, which was now many kilometers distant across the tree-dotted sea of grass.

When he came in hailing distance of the mounted men who brought up the army’s rear, he was assured that Duncan himself was only a short distance ahead. Alternately walking and trotting, moving up along the column, Rolf could see the special bitter weariness of defeat in every face. It had been defeat, but not disaster; the army was basically intact. Men had retained their weapons, the wounded were being borne efficiently along on animals and in litters.

Duncan was riding alone, in battle-stained clothing, a little apart from his chief officers. When Rolf came trotting at his stirrup, Duncan looked down, at first with weary curiosity, then with delayed recognition and sudden new interest.

“Hail, Duncan.” With a minimum of preamble, Rolf passed on Ardneh’s last admonitions, as nearly word for word as he could manage to do.

“Yes, the bird came through with your message. I thank you for all that you have done.”A new thought seemed to strike Duncan. “What happened to the girl who was with you there?”

“I had hoped to find her here, sir.”

Duncan looked sharply back over his shoulder, made a little motion of his head, and a pair of men among those riding a little distance to the rear kicked their mounts into a faster pace that brought them up to Duncan. These two men were well dressed, and though armed they somehow did not look like soldiers. A few words that Rolf did not catch passed between them and Duncan, and then they dismounted, let Duncan ride on ahead, and came to walk beside Rolf, leading their animals. Meanwhile Duncan was engaged in some traveling discussion by some of his high officers.

The two well-dressed men introduced themselves to Rolf. “We are kinsmen of Catherine’s,” one explained, “and have come all the way from the Offshore Islands in search of her. At first we heard she was enslaved, and meant to try to ransom her; then were rejoiced to hear how she had escaped, with some Western soldiers, at some remote caravanserai. Now we hear that you are one of those soldiers, and that you have seen her lately. We entreat you, tell us whatever more you can.”

Rolf nodded slowly, looking the men over. Both looked young, elegant, tough. “There is little enough to add.” He turned away momentarily to look out over the surrounding grassy plain. Other stragglers like himself were still coming in, catching up with the army, but none of those in sight at the moment was a woman. Turning back, he asked: “To which one of you was she betrothed?”

“Neither, “said one. They exchanged glances with each other. “We are both blood relatives. That one would not come.”

Rolf felt his heart leap up; he could not convince himself that Catherine was really lying but there somewhere dead. He spoke then in a more friendly way to the Islanders’, telling them what he could that might afford them some hope. He omitted the business of Charmian’s curse.

The others in turn searched him carefully with their eyes, no doubt trying to ascertain what had been his exact relationship with their kinswoman. They had him repeat parts of his story-where and when he had seen her last, how was her general health. Then, after offering courteous thanks, they mounted again and dropped back toward the rear of the column.

Now far back in that direction, directly above the shadow-shroud of Ardneh’s beseiged redoubt, there came a silken ripple in the empty sky. Rolf felt a faint tilting of the world with a sensation like the beginning of nausea. In the sky there was a slash of purple hanging -imperial color, color also of injury, pain, obscenity, agony, like tissue swollen with blood, like the first brushstroke of some evil artist who meant to paint over all the smiling day. Orcus, coming again to the attack, slowly manifesting him-.self above his stubborn enemy.

The sight made no immediate difference, in the pace of the Western army’s stoic march. Some officer-yes, it was an old friend of Rolf’s, Thomas of the Broken Lands-riding beside Duncan, began vehementaly to push the suggestion that the army fall back on and attempt to hold the natural citadel of the Black Mountains.

Duncan shook his head briefly. “Not against such power as drove us from the field yesterday. You were there. With one hand, or so it seemed, the king-devil yonder in the air nullified all that my best wizards tried to do against him; and with the other hand, so to speak, he did the same for Ardneh, and wore him down. While with the sword-well, we tried. I will not throw my army away. As many of our men fell as of the East, and as they outnumber us to begin with, I see no profit in that game. As for the citadel, you took it once, when superior magic was on our side. Could they not take it back, when their king-demon leads them?”

The two Offshore men, who had dropped back, were spurring forward now, passing Rolf and Dun-can.

Thomas was saying: “Then we’ll split up into small bands again. We’ll start the war over from the beginning, if need be.”

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