Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Rolf swept the landscape once more with his glasses. Here was something new, coming toward the Castle from the southwest, the general direction of the swamps. In a little while Rolf made out that it was a group of slaves or prisoners being marched along a road. First he had seen only the dust raised by their slow progress; now through the glasses he could see that they were men and women both, chained or roped together, perhaps fifteen of them. Now he could see the arm of a bronze-helmed guard rise and snap and fall back again. A long time later the faint pop of the whip came drifting across the intervening valley of the pass.

He did not want to watch this and yet could not keep from watching. The prisoners’ faces became visible. More bewildered conscripts for the endless building…

Rolf nearly dropped the glasses. He raised them again quickly, and with shaking fingers turned the knurled knob that Thomas had taught him to use for greatest clarity. Still the image wavered before him, until he remembered to rest his elbows once more in the sand.

A little behind the other prisoners, and bound more lightly if at all, was ayoung girl who looked like Sarah. She was riding, mounted on a huge beast behind a soldier. She looked like Sarah all the more as they came slowly closer. If it was not some terrible trick of these demon-begotten glasses… Rolf kept trying to tell himself that it was only that.

At last he woke Thomas. Thomas was instantly alert, but still just too late to see the girl as the Castle’s maw swallowed the last of the prisoners and their guard. The teeth of its portcullis snapped shut behind them.

Thomas put down the glasses he had just raised. “Are you sure it was Sarah?”

“Yes.” Rolf stared at a double handful of sand and pebbles, into which he was digging his fingers until they hurt.

“Well.” It seemed to Rolf that Thomas was taking the news with unnatural calm. “Did you recognize anyone else?”

“No. I don’t think any were people from our camp.”

“So. There might have been some word about Nils come into the swamp, and Sarah went out to try to make sure of it-whatever it was. And she just got picked up. Those things happen. Anyway, there’s nothing we can do about it, except to go on with what we’re doing now.” When Rolf nodded, he put a hand on Rolf’s shoulder for a moment, then turned away again against the rock. “I should sleep a little longer. Be sure and rouse me before the sun goes down.”

But Thomas could scarcely have fallen asleep before Rolf was shaking him again. More people were approaching the Castle, and had popped suddenly into Rolf’s view, their earlier progress having been hidden from him by the rock he sheltered against. Not in chains did these folk come, but in great splendor, on a gaily-painted river barge descending the Dolles, escorted on each shore by a hundred mounted men.

This time Thomas looked long before handing the glasses back to Rolf. “It’s the Satrap Chup, coming down from his own robber’s roost in the north. Ekuman’s son-in-law to be.”

The barge tied up at the central landing-place. In the center of those who disembarked was a powerful-looking man in black trousers and cuirass trimmed with red, mounted on a magnificent riding-beast. And beside him on a white animal came riding a young girl with blonde hair of marvel-ous length; so fair was her skin, so beautiful her face, that Rolf wondered again, aloud, if the glasses might not add a shading of magic to the things they showed.

“No, no,” Thomas reassured him, dryly. “You’ll not have seen herbefore, because her habit is to stay in the Castle or very near it. But that’s Charmian, Ekuman’s daughter. She evidently went halfway to meet her bridegroom, and now comes finishing his journey with him. It might be an interesting wedding; I’ve heard there’s another in the Castle who dotes on her.”

“How could you hear that?”

“The Castle servants are human if the masters are not. They’re too frightened to talk much, but sometimes a single word can travel marvelously.”

Rolf had heard of Charmian’s existence, but had not really thought about her until now. “I thought that Ekuman had no wife.”

“He had once, or perhaps she was only a favored concubine. Then he went East, to perfect himself in… the ways that he has chosen.”

Rolf did not understand. “He went East?”

“From where he came to begin with I do not know, but he has been to the Black Mountains, to pledge himself to Som the Dead.”

That name was new to Rolf. Later he would seek to learn more, but now he took a turn at thoughtful silence. It was beyond his understanding that a fiend like Ekuman should have a lovely daughter, to be given away like some kindly farmer’s,.with a feast.

Thomas’s thoughts were evidently running along the same lines. “I wonder sometimes why such as these bother to marry. Hardly to pledge their love. I think not even to pledge each other any kind of honest help in life.”

“Why, then? ” Rolf wanted to think of anything but what might be happening to Sarah.

Thomas shrugged. “It’s hard to remember sometimes that Ekuman and those about him are still human, that the crimes they commit are human crimes. I’ve heard Loford say that if the Satraps live for many years, growing stronger in their evil, it sometimes happens that they are summoned East at last, to stay.”


“To become something more or less than human, I think that was the way Loford put it.” Thomas yawned. “Loford wasn’t sure, and I’m talking in total ignorance. You want another nap?”

“No. I don’t feel tired.”

So Thomas did sleep again, but he roused himself well before sunset, and then Rolf was willing enough to take another nap himself. He only dozed, and got up without being wakened as the shadows began to deepen.

Like the humans of the Castle, the reptiles had been coming and going in small numbers all through the day, but now they came from all directions, in haste to reach their roosts before night. Now was the time when Feathertip, if she had been following her original plan, would have come soaring forth. Tonight she could have caught more than one straggler made careless by the Castle’s nearness. But with a far greater enterprise hanging in the balance, the birds would not hunt reptiles tonight. The leatherwings came home unmolested, to slowly blacken the rooftops of the Castle with their clusters.

And in the earliest of the true night the two birds came silently down the canyon, following the dim twisting channel of it with scarcely a wing-movement. Their huge shapes were over Rolf before he had more than imagined that he saw them.

Rolf and Thomas were each carrying ropes, long and strong but thin, wound about them under their shirts. Thomas unwound a long rope now from his ribs, and tied one end of it into a loop, of a size Feathertip directed.

The two birds then flew back up the canyon. Behind them a trailing end of rope tickled over the sand and over shadowed, broken rocks where human feet must move with caution.

Rolf and Thomas followed. The looped rope had already been hung for climbing when they caught up with the birds, who sat waiting on the canyon floor.

“Well,” said Thomas. He set down his pack, then tugged hard on the rope, to make sure that the loop was holding solidly on the invisible peak, about eleven times his height. Then he hesitated. At last he said, “If I’m killed or left unconscious beyond rousing -I’ve seen men that way after a fall- then you must just go on as best you can.”

“I know.”

After that Thomas delayed no more but climbed, swiftly and surely; Rolf envied the strength of arm that could swing a big man up like that. For a few moments Thomas’s climbing figure was outlined vaguely against the stars. Then he passed out of sight above a convexity of rock. Soon after that, the hanging rope’s gyrations ceased.

From where he stood Rolf could see only that loose descending rope, and nothing of what was going on above. He could see where Thomas would come down, if he fell. At that place a hard flat surface would have been bad enough, but the actuality was worse, a jumble of sharp upjutting stony corners.

The rope hung still, and held time with it. Then the long line started swaying again. Rolf let out his breath in a huge silent puff. The birds were first to settle to the ground, and then the man, who slid the last distance with his sandaled feet clamping the rope.

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