Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

No, that was not worth turning his head to save. If only Nils had killed him, instead!

When he could think again, when his self-disgust was turning wholly outward against those who had so tricked and used him, he saw that his tutor was being made now to kneel at Rolf’s side. The man spoke at last, in a muttering voice. “Mercy, Lord.” But he did not raise his eyes to look at Ekuman.

“Tell me, my loyal sergeant-who gave the orders for this method of training the two gladiators?”

In answer the old soldier gasped. His head twisted around, eyes staring, as if he wanted to see something invisible that had fastened on him from behind. In the next moment he was toppling forward from his knees, much as Nils had done in the arena. But this man was smitten by no blade, only stiffening and straining in some sort of fit, gone foaming and speechless.

Ekuman was on his feet, barking angry orders. The man with the toad-creature watched the fit, then raised his head frowning as he who had been in the rear of the chamber came forward at a majestic pace, tall and gray.

Ekuman held out to this one a blackened case of metal, and said, “Elslood. Tell me quickly what you can make of this.”

Frowning, the wizard Elslood took the thing, weighed it in his hand, muttered over it for a moment, then raised the curved lid, while some around shrank back. He stared at the lump of blackened stone that lay inside. “I can tell you nothing quickly, Lord, save that there is some real power here.”

“That much I knew. Put the thing in some safe place, then, and attend me here. I mean to get to the bottom of this game that was played in the arena today.”

Elslood shut the case with a snap. He looked down once -as if indifferently -at the fallen soldier, who was still writhing feebly on the floor while others tried to minister to him. Elslood looked at Rolf, and again, stronger than before, the image of his eyes burned brilliant and gigantic in Rolf’s mind. Then he handed the case to the man with the toad, at the same time indicating the far side of the chamber with a motion of his head. The man with the toad-creature accepted the case and started across the chamber with it. On the far side was ah arras which might hide a closet or a separate apartment.

Through the window nearest him, Rolf heard rain roar suddenly upon the flat roof-terrace just outside. Servants had just finished lighting torches, and the flames smoked fitfully. Rolf had the sensation that the sky, like some great flat coffin-lid, was pressing down upon the tower.

“Now, sirrah!” Ekuman was speaking to him again. But this time the Satrap’s voice seemed to be coming and going, issuing from behind a barrier and then emerging once more, echoing through an immense distance. Rolf did not seem to be able to answer. The image of Elslood’s eyes, growing and swelling, remained like some malignant growth within his head, clouding thought and vision alike. The tall gray wizard was standing nearby, but Rolf dared not look up at him again.

“Answer me, sirrah!” Ekuman was almost shouting. “Good answers now will save some pains when you are taken down below!”

Whether it was the boldness of utter despair that now settled on Rolf or whether some outside power came to his aid, he managed to put away both the terror that Ekuman wanted to fasten on him and the imposed vision of the wizard’s eyes that would compel him to be silent. The Satrap’s face grew clear before Rolf and he stood up from his knees.

Ekuman’s voice was clear and ordinary once more, coming with the drumming of the rain through a heavy silence. “Tell me, master swordsman, whose agent are you?”

Beyond all fear now, Rolf smiled. “I? I am Ardneh -”

The night pressing on the Castle was destroyed. The light that rent it was as sudden as that which had blazed out of Elephant’s side, and a thousand times, a million times, as bright. The concussion that came with it was beyond all sound.

Rolf was aware only that something had hit him with force enough to knock him down, nay, turn him inside out as well. Other people had been hit also, for a voice was screaming, over and over. No, it was more than one voice. Some of the women’s voices had turned guttural, and there were masculine ones gone high and childish.

By some means that Rolf did not understand at first, the window nearest him had just been widened, so that rain drove in on him where he lay on the floor amid loose stones and broken wood. The noises of human agony went on. Could that be Sarah screaming, Chup stabbing her with his punishing cudgel?

When Rolf raised his head a ball of lightning was still adrift in the middle of the room. He watched it dancing about there, lightly and hesitantly, as if it looked to see whether any chance for destruction had been missed, before it skipped to the wall and vanished up a chimney.

A path of ruin had been plowed straight across the center of the room. From the blasted window nearest Rolf to the flaming arras of the distant alcove, human bodies and furniture had been treated like the nestings of mice turned up by a furrowing plow. The wooden floor was marked with a blackened path, smoking and smoldering. The incoming rain hissed on this scar where it was near Rolf’s head, but could not reach it elsewhere.

The smoke oozing up from the floor was forming a thick cloud in the higher air, so Rolf did not at once attempt to stand. Crawling would serve, for the moment. Where was Sarah? She was gone, like his sister and his parents. On hands and knees he moved dazedly over wreckage, seeing without emotion the twitching dead and the struggling injured, hearing the lip-licking crackle of the hungry bright young flames.

Not finding Sarah, he went on dazedly following the black burning furrow of the lightning-plow. At the end of the path he came to Zarfs roasted body; Zarf smelled of cooked meat now. In death his face no longer ordinary, and the dead thing at his shoulder was no longer a toad, but an odd terrible little creature like a bearded human baby. And here was a monstrous spider, sizzled crisp; and none of these were stranger than other things that were strewn across the floor, amid tumbled shelves and fallen, burning draperies.

Not having found Sarah, Rolf turned back again. He saw now that there were new people in the room, moving capably about, and he got himself to his feet. More he could not do. Now soldiers and servants were pouring into the chamber, from the stair and from the roof-terrace.

And Ekuman himself was on his feet, His rich garments were torn, his face begrimed, but the vigor of his movements showed that he had taken no serious hurt. In his hands he now held one of the Old World things that Rolf had earlier noticed on the wall behind the throne -one of a pair of red cylinders, whose mate still hung there on a strap. At one end of the cylinder was a black nozzle which Ekuman aimed at the burning floor. With his other hand he gripped a trigger that reminded Rolf of some of the controls inside the Elephant.

From the black nozzle there shot out a white rope that looked hardly more substantial than smoke, but remained coherent and opague and was heavy enough to sink to the floor. There it expanded. Like some magic pudding the whiteness spread itself across the burning floor, flame and smoking wood vanishing beneath it. The wounded lying on the floorbrought their heads above the white blanket to gasp for air-but they need struggle and cry no longer for fear of being burned. The fire was quickly being put out.

There was Sarah, beside Nils’ stretcher, holding up his head above the whiteness. The sight of her alive was joy to Rolf, even though a soldier had her in charge, and even though two more of them seized him as he took his first step toward her.

Ekuman worked on, a diligent laborer. From the seemingly inexhaustible device he held there spread out a white carpet to cover all the fire. His soldiers and his servants took heart from the sight of their Lord standing calmly unharmed in the midst of it. Soon, at his orders, the wounded were being lifted up, the damage assessed, order reestablished.

Only one voice went keening on in mindless fear, the voice of one who had not been hurt. Rolf saw Chup draw back his hand and coldly slap his smudge-faced wife. The one blow brought her to a silence of astonishment, utter and open-mouthed.

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