Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“This lot here is a bit fresher than the last,” said the warden hopefully, looking into the cell.

Chup sniffed. “If no sweeter.” The cell was pretty well filled up with ten or a dozen men who at first glance looked like nothing much; but with only a quick look you could never be sure. Chup was inescapably interested in fighting and in fighters, even only in potential. The Master of the Games began to harangue this lot of wretches: brave lads raise your hands, who will step out and have a chance for glory, and so forth. If Chup had been in a cell he would not have believed a word of it for a moment. Neither did those who were in fact inside; though it stood to reason that any who were real men in there would seize even the faintest chance to take revenge for their evil fate.

On impulse, Chup took charge. “Open the door,” he ordered. He got a startled glance from the warden, whose speech he interrupted, but such was the Satrap’s voice and bearing that he did not have to repeat himself.

As the warden was swinging a segment of the grillwork back, Chup drew out his sword and set it on the dirty floor. This was not his prized battle-winning weapon, of course, he would not treat that in such a style. This was a fancier-looking blade that he wore on dress-up days like this-it was serviceable enough, of course.

All were gaping at him. “Now let me borrow this,” he said. And he took the cudgel from the startled warden’s belt, tried the grip of it in his hand, whipped it once or twice through the air. Then he held it down at his side.

He addressed the sullen, unbelieving faces inside the cell. “You men in there! Or whatever you are. If there be a man among you, let him come out and take this up.” He shoved with his elegant toe at the bare sword, moving it a hand’s breadth nearer them. “We’re at the end of a passage here, and you can set your back against a wall and hack away at me – these two with me will give us room, I doubt not. Well?”

No answer.

“Come, come, you fear to soil my fine garments? Let me tell you, I raped a dozen of your sisters this morning, ere I had my breakfast. Look, the sword is real. D’you think I’d stoop to playing pranks on such as you -well, here’s a bantam with some life in him, if we can’t get a man full grown.”

Putting one foot slowly in front of the other, Rolf was coming out of the cell. As soon as he was out, the warden sprang forward and clanged shut the door.

Whether it was the power of Ardneh that possessed Rolf now, or only the power of hate, it left no room in him for fear. Without taking his eyes from Chup’s, he squatted and rose up again, the sword’s hilt now gripped tight in his right hand. The weapon felt wonderfully deadly, longer and heavier than the only other sword that he had ever held.

The warden and the Master of the Games retreated; with cautious outrage they peered around the Satrap at this strange creature, an armed prisoner. At another time Rolf might have laughed at their expressions. The Master of the Games had one hand half-raised, almost but not quite daring to pluck at the Lord Chup’s sleeve; and the warden kept muttering, something about calling for a couple of men with pikes.

Chup’s eyes were locked with Rolf’s, a resonance between them. In the tall Satrap’s face there was a life that had not been there before. Without looking around he answered the blithering behind him: “Oh, go away if you like, and stand behind your pikemen. Only let me have a few moments’ life at least out of this deadly boring day.”

And Chup was thinking: Mountains of the East! Look how ready this one is to carve me! See in his face how little he values his own skin at this moment. If he but knew how to hold that sword, I’d be looking for pikemen myself. Ah, to lead into battle an army of men who all had something like this one’s will to fight!

The youth was coming forward now, moving slowly at first, convincing himself that there was no hidden trap laid for him here. In a moment he would lunge, or hack. Chup waited, poised, holding the cudgel loosely, waist-high, pointing it horizontally like a dagger. He had grown happy, moved into the true intense life of physical danger, so much more real than any other part of life. He was going to have to exert all his powers, to win with the short stick of wood against the long keen blade and the earnest clumsy hate behind it.

Rolf’s intent to attack showed itself in his face an instant before he lunged, and Chup was very glad to have the warning; he knew the young could move very fast, and utter ignorance could wield a sword with deadly unorthodoxy. Dodging back, Chup made the awkward downcurve of the blade’s path miss him by something less than he in his bravest moments would have planned. Chup counterattacked, stepping in with his best speed, whacking down with the cudgel against the blade to keep a backstroke from coming up into his legs or groin, then dagger-thrusting with the blunt club. He aimed just below the youth’s breastbone; he did not want to do this brave one any permanent damage.

Rolf never saw the counterthrust coming. He only felt the murderous impact of it, paralyzing him, knocking out his wind. His hand let go the sword. His knees betrayed him also, so that he fell slumping down onto the dirty stones, seeing through a reddish haze, fighting now for nothing greater than to draw a breath.

The warden and the Master of the Games, in voices loud with relief, clamored their praise for his Lordship’s bravery and skill. His Lordship spat. His toe prodded Rolf, gently. “You there-you’ll have another chance in a few days to draw some blood.” He handed the cudgel back to the warden, and accepted the sword the man had picked up for him.

“Feed and exercise him,” Chup ordered, nodding at Rolf. Then he surveyed for the last time the other prisoners, who were now moving restlessly inside their fetid cage, awake now when it was too late and the door was once more shut upon them. So Chup had expected, knowing men. “Faugh! Pick out what other ones you will!” He stalked away.

Rolf was not put back into the cell, but instead, when he could walk, led to a stair and so up into full daylight. Then through one small courtyard after another, amid a warren of walls and sheds and gates. By turning his head to look up at the keep and its tower, he tried to get his bearings; he was now on the eastern side of the keep, still of course within the mighty outer walls. And just as his breath was coming back strong enough to let him walk easily, Rolf saw that which made him feel that Chup’s club had struck again -a small face, framed in dark hair, in a narrow window high up in the keep.

He tried to delay to look a moment longer, but the guards dragged him on. Still out-of-doors, they brought him at last to a cell that stood alone against the wall of a shed, a stone-walled cell just about big enough for a man to stand up in and long enough for him to lie down. It was quite windowless, but the door was an open grillwork of hardwood and iron bars.

Small as this cell was, it gave him more room than had the crowded one below. And this one was free of filth, and open to the air. Looking out through the grillwork of the door into the sunlight, Rolf could not see much more than the wall and corner of the adjacent shed, and more blank walls a few meters distant. The keep and its windows were not within his range of vision.

He had not been sitting long on the straw-littered floor when a warden came, bringing him a jug of water, and a plate of food surprisingly substantial and clean. Rolf drank and ate, and tried to keep himself from thinking of anything beyond the moment’s satisfaction.

He was startled awake from a nervous, twitching doze by the grating of the cell’s lock. One man stood at the opened door, a tough-looking soldier with a tanned, lined face, not one of the dungeon wardens. This man wore the bronze helmet of the troops, and under his arm he carried a pair of mock swords, having true handles but blunt wooden shafts instead of blades.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *