Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

On his first night within the Castle walls Rolf in his great exhaustion could do nothing but sleep. In the morning he was well fed, and again at noon. And in both morning and afternoon the old soldier came to take him to the practice yard, where they spent an hour or two each time. In the afternoon they practiced with real shields as well as the mock-swords, and Rolf was given a gladiator’s barbut-helm to accustom himself to wearing.

His hands were callused by farm work, and he had thought his arms well toughened too. But this new unfamiliar weight of weaponry seemed to discover new muscles and set them aching. His tutor drilled him mainly in endless repetitions of simple lunge and parry, retreat and counterstroke. It was work that soon grew dull; and for all Rolf’s sullen urge to hurt his enemies, he could not manage to hit this man while the old soldier corrected Rolf’s technique by jabbing and thwacking him in the ribs, seemingly at will.

As if Rolf’s lessons were something semi-secret, the practice sessions were ended whenever other soldiers came to the yard to carve at the timber butts, or spar against one another. Rolf felt some curiosity at this, but there were more demanding burdens on his mind. Escape was much in his thoughts, now that he was nourished and had rested. But the high walls were all around, and only his thoughts could leap them.

Looking up from the practice-yard from time to time during the day, Rolf marked the growing preparations for the approaching wedding. Flowers and gay banners were being brought by the wagonload into the Castle, where they were at once made grotesque by their surroundings. At the direction of the Master of the Games, these were displayed on walls and parapets and railings. Rolf wondered if the bleaching human bones hanging beside the high reptile-roosts would be bedecked with flowers as well.

And somewhere not far from his cell, lively music was being rehearsed throughout the day. The Castle was preparing to work at being joyful, but Rolf could see no joy in any face, as he had seen during the preparation of farmers’ weddings. Here even the Master of the Games had a prisoner’s countenance.

On his second night in his privileged cell, Rolf saw the labor-gangs returning just after sunset from their work, being driven stumbling and staggering back to the dungeons from which they had been routed in the early morning. There was rockdust and sand on them tonight, not river-mud – he knew by this that most of them had been working on the north side of the pass, lifting off the mountain from Elephant’s resting place.

Leaning against the cell wall beside his door, Rolf listened as two of the overseers trudged past wearily. One said that today the digging had uncovered the corner of a door, but there was days’ work yet remaining. Aye, said the other. Not until after the wedding would they be done.

The voices faded. Rolf threw himself down on his bed of straw. The mount of Ardneh was almost freed -the Elephant, that belonged more to Rolf than to any other. Even his coming duel with Chup faded to secondary importance in his thoughts.

During this night a second shift of slaves went out from the dungeons to labor, a column of soldiers at their side, marching as sullenly as they. The courtyards were ablaze with torches through most of the night. Workers and messengers kept coming and going, and even the singing practice went on, so the business of the digging seemed all mixed with that of the wedding. Rolf could sleep but little with the noise and the light. And he was worried again, for his life no longer seemed valueless. He must not die, just fora chance of scratching Chup -not when the Free Folk might be facing slaughter for want of knowledge of the Elephant, knowledge that Rolf alone could give them.

When morning came and he was taken as usual from his cell to go to the barracks latrine, Rolf noticed more than one tiny burnt-out stub of torch amid the night’s casual litter on the paving stones. The guard who was escorting him today had taken on either too much work or too much wine, or both, last night, so that his eyes were closed as much as they were open. Coming back, Rolf contrived to stoop and fiddle with his sandal-straps. When the door of his cell swung shut on him again, he had a little charcoal-stick closed safe within his sweating hand.

Again he was given water and good food. And again, the old soldier came to take him to practice. Rolf had contrived to hide his piece of charcoal inside a seam of his shirt. And the impulse that had prompted him to pick it up had begun to grow in his mind into something of a scheme.

Today his tutor brought swords, though dull of edge and blunt of point. During the practice Rolf’s mind was kept too busy to elaborate on schemes. He was beginning to appreciate the truth of Mewick’s warning -that the martial arts were not to be learned in a week. Just as he thought his sword arm had finally developed some cunning, his teacher’s weapon would thump against his ribs once more.

But during the break at noon, and when he was locked once more into his cell at nightfall, he was free to think. The idea had already occurred to him that the birds must certainly come reconnoitering at night, probably every night, above the Castle. He saw that the defensive cords and nets were always carefully spread on the high places after the reptiles had come thronging back at sunset. But there was nothing to stop the birds from passing over, higher still. There would always be some scrap of information that they might gain, using their sharp eyes and their wits. Now, if he could only display some sort of message for them to read….

That night within the Castle walls was quieter than the last; it seemed that the attempt to work a double shift in clearing Elephant’s hiding place had been abandoned. Maybe there were not enough slaves still driveable. Tonight there was no prodigality of torches in the courtyards, and Rolf’s cell was unobserved, save by the sentry who passed by a few meters away, at reasonably predictable intervals. Rolf had realized that no one could see the roof of his cell. The adjacent shed kept it from being seen from the height of the keep.

Turning his comparatively new shirt inside out gave him a nearly white surface for a slate. After pondering for a while on how to get the most information into the fewest words possible, he set down: I RODE ELE. IN CAVE

And then he was stuck for a way to convey what should be said of the power that he had seen and sensed. Finally all he could add was: SAVE IT FROM EKUMAN ROLF

He thickened and darkened the letters with double strokes of his writing-stick, and worked them into the fabric with fingers and spit. He rolled up the garment and unrolled it again; his message seemed to have a fair degree of permanence.

Now he had only to display it on his cell’s flat roof, spread out straight and unwrinkled enough for a bird to read. After a little thought he reached out through the bars at the bottom of his door and gathered in some traces of the recent construction that lay there, small stones and little chunks of dried mortar. Choosing from these several that seemed of proper size, he made shift to attach them as weights to the lower edge of the shirt, loosening threads from the garment to tie them on. It took some time to make them all secure, but of hours he had plenty.

He rolled up the shirt then like a scroll, and made several practice openings of it, snapping it out to unroll quickly on the floor. One of the weights came loose and had to be retied, but he saw no reason why the scheme should not be successful.

Meanwhile he had been counting silently, roughly timing the passages of the sentry. Now Rolf waited until the man had passed once more, then went to the door. He thrust his rolled-up shirt out through the high bars, then held it by the shoulders and unrolled it with a backward snap. He heard the little stones strike with tiny clacks on the flat roof above his head.

Leaving the shirt spread out -as he hoped-upon the roof, he went to huddle in the cell’s darkest corner. So grimly was he forbidding himself to indulge in any hope that when there came another tiny clack on the roof he jumped to his feet, convinced that the sound must somehow mean that his signal had been discovered by the enemy. But no outcry followed. There came no rush of raging men with torches.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred