Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

That night there came the signal of a single pebble, which Rolf answered with one wave. Three, two, one, the count had gone, from night to night.

On the morning of the following day, Rolf knew, the wedding would take place. In the afternoon he would face Chup in the arena. Certainly it was neither of these things that the Free Folk were signaling to tell him-therefore something else of great importance was coining, tomorrow or tomorrow night.

He meant to be alive to see it.

He was awakened early on the wedding-day by loud shouts, and by music that sounded like the accompaniment of some bawdy dance. He thought again that today’s festivities could not be much like those of the simple pledge-weddings he had seen and attended. On those occasions the company maintained at least an effort at solemnity until the middle of the day, until vows had been exchanged and perhaps some amateur wizard of the countryside had tried to put a spell of happiness upon the rings. After that the dancing and the drinking started, and the games, and whatever feasting the people could afford….

The day wore on. Rolf was given a fresh surcoat of cheap black cloth to put on over his own clothes. There was no sword practice, no sight of his instructor. He was fed as usual and escorted to the privy. About the courtyards there were men in liveries that Rolf had not seen before-in each the color black was matched with one other, red or green or white or gray. It was true, then, that wedding guests were here from all the Satrapies nearby.

In the later afternoon the Master of the Games came with two wardens to Rolf’s cell, and he was hurried out of it. First to the privy once more -he supposed so their Lordships should not be disgusted if fear overcame him utterly in the arena. And then he was led under the keep, to a small window-less chamber with an overhead of oddly slanting timbers. Through the cracks in this ceiling, and around a closed dooropposite the one they entered by, sunlight filtered in. Feet tramped overhead, the sound of laughter came from very near above, and Rolf realized that he was already under the seats ringing the arena. His soldier-tutor had given him some description of the place.

A bronze helm and a shield and sword were waiting for him. While the Master of the Games hurried off on some other errand, Rolf’s guards handed him the first of two of these items at once. They eyed him critically while he took the shield on his arm and set the barbut on his head; he supposed they wanted to see whether he was likely to collapse with fear.

From against the wall they swung out a cunning sort of cagework, meant to hold him against the door leading to the arena. Only after he was thus restrained did they put the naked sword into his hand. Some signal came to them almost at once when that was done, and one man hauled on a chain to make the door in front of Rolf fly open, while the other took up a spear to urge him, if need be, out onto the sand.

The spear was not needed. Rolf’s legs carried him out into the glare of the low sun. Through the T of his helmet’s opening he had a glimpse of a ring of faces above him, gay colors, movement; he was greeted with a burst of brutal noise. He stood at one end of a sandy oval, some twenty meters long and proportionately wide, surrounded by a high smooth unscalable wall.

There came another roar of applause, and Rolf saw the tall, black-clad figure of his opponent stalking toward him, coming from the opposite end of the flat little world in which the two of them were now alone. A red mask painted on the front of a black barbut-helm concealed Chup’s face. Holding sword and shield ready, he came straight forward; in his gait there was a swaying movement that Rolf could interpret only as some intended mockery.

Rolf put out of his mind everything but: strike flrst, and strike hard. His knees that had been quivering now bore him forward steadily.

His enemy was taller, and longer of reach, and so had the privilege of striking first; an option he chose to exercise. The straight overhand cut seemed a mockery also, for it was slower than some that Rolf had parried from his tutor’s blade. Rolf caught the downstroke on his shield, and perhaps he shouted-he had thought earlier that when this moment came he should shout something, so the evil ones who watched would know that he was dying for the cause of freedom.

Later, he did not know whether he had cried out anything at all at this moment. He knew only that he deflected the clumsy downstroke with his shield, as he had been taught to do, and thrust straight in to kill.

His point slid so easily through the black cloth and between his opponent’s ribs that for a moment Rolf did not believe in his success. He retreated a step, thinking only: What trick is this?

But the man in black was not shamming. A spurting stain of red spread down his front. His arms sagged with his weapons in them, and with what seemed infinite weariness he went down upon his knees. Then, turning sideways, he toppled out full length upon the sand.

Victory still seemed unreal to Rolf. The gay throng encircling him above the wall were cheering, a sound was made even more incredible by the groans that mingled with it -not laments of rage or shock, but whines of mere disappointment, the sounds of watchers cheated by the sudden ending of a show.

Taking off his helmet, Rolf looked up. Chup sat there, in the first bank of seats, looking down at Rolf, smiling lightly and applauding. Beside Chup was his golden bride; even now Rolf noticed that Char-mian was looking across the arena and up, with expectancy in her face.

Rolf turned and looked down again at the figure on the sand. He scarcely noticed when soldiers came to take his weapon away; he was watching two dungeon-wardens approach the fallen man. One of them cautiously kicked away the dropped sword while the other turned the body on its back and pulled off the demon-painted barbut. The face revealed was young, and quite unknown to Rolf.

One of the wardens had begun to raise a heavy maul, to give the quietus. His motion was stopped on the backstroke by a scream -a woman’s shriek so sudden and so terrible that it sent reptiles cawing up in startlement from their high perches on the overlooking keep.

And Rolf knew whom he had stabbed; he knew when he looked up and saw that the screaming girl was Sarah.

The Satrap Ekuman, twisting around in his cushioned seat of honor under a bronze-black awning was looking at Sarah also. Plainly the girl was screeching the name of the man who had just fallen in the oddly unequal bout. Something more than a coincidence, thought Ekuman. With a look he ordered the Master of the Harem to be quick about quieting the girl, getting the nuisance of her shrieks and her contorted face out of the presence of the guests. And then he faced forward again, looking across the arena to where his daughter sat beside her bridegroom. It had become almost a reflex for Ekuman to suspect his daughter, whenever some nasty internal intrigue threatened the peace if not the very security of his household. And the expression she was wearing now, a look of slight aristocratic puzzlement at the disturbance, was quite too good for him to believe in it for a moment.


The Satrap was not, of course, concerned about the bereavement of a harem slave. Nor, really, about the fixing of a gladiatorial contest, though that was an annoyance. What bit him was the discovery that an intrigue of any kind could be accomplished, in his own Castle and without his knowledge, by one who was departing, who tomorrow would presumably have no power here at all. It meant that there were people in his establishment, in positions of responsibility, whose first loyalty was to his daughter today and would be so tomorrow, when she would be Lady in a rival house, when there would be things of infinitely greater moment at stake.

He would impress his guests. He would find out, today, who those folk were, and today he would be rid of them.

Already he was leaning forward, with an outstretched hand staying the wardens in the arena from disposing of the fallen man, who might be saved for questioning. Garl, Master of the Troops, having seen from his Lord’s expression that something was amiss, was already at his side. Ekuman issued quick orders that both gladiators, and those who had had them in charge, should be brought before him at once. “In my Presence Chamber.”

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