Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy


The Morning Twilight

Scowling, intent on his labors, Elslood stood at a table flanked by torches, at the side of the lightning-blasted Presence Chamber opposite the empty throne. The floor around him was still strewn with stones from the riven window, with clots and patches of the durable fire-extinguishing foam, and other debris of the afternoon’s disaster, a corpse or two included. But the bodies of Zarf and Zarf’s familiar had been removed; a wizard’s corpse was still a thing of power, liable to disrupt another man’s magic.

Here in his own place, where his closet had once been covered by rich hangings and protected by a spider, Elslood had set up his worktable and reestablished a measure of order. Gesturing and reciting now over the diagrams and objects he had disposed upon the tabletop, Elslood foresaw that his labor was likely to be futile. The subtler arts were hard to use against an enemy in the field, when swords were out and blood a-spilling. Elementals were sometimes employable in such situations, of course -his industrious opponent Loford had quite a knack for raising them, though he was hardly Elslood’s match in other ways. But no one could raise an elemental from the worked stones of the Castle, nor from the man-trampled patch of earth the Castle stood on.

On the table was a flat-sided crystal, which had been darkening steadily as Elslood worked. He could not bring the darkness to fruition, could not summon out of it the dread power that he wanted-but the crystal in its present state did act prosaically as a mirror. The mirror distracted Elslood with its reflection of a tableau set on the far side of the chamber, not far from Ekuman’s empty throne. Soldiers were constantly coming and going through the room on various errands, but always one of them stood guard there, over the litter holding the prisoner who today had fallen in the arena. And always the dark-haired girl was there, keeping her gentler watch.

Elslood knew that even battle and invasion had not made Ekuman forget the warning of the day’s intrigue. Ekuman never forgot. And when Ekuman had won the night’s battle, as it seemed now that he would, he would take up the investigation as before.

Elslood had effectively silenced the sergeant by inflicting fits of madness. And the mysterious youth who had called himself Ardneh had escaped. The one on the litter, though, might still give testimony that would ultimately involve Elslood. Certainly the one on the litter should be silenced. But there was the soldier on guard, and the dark-haired harem-girl presenting a greater if unconscious obstacle. Her devotion radiated like a torch to keep the dark arts of madness at a distance. Still it should be possible to do something, to finish off one who was so gravely hurt….

So it happened that Elslood, distracted from his duty to his Lord, was looking behind him through the crystal’s mirror, and in one flat surface of it saw a winged shape enter at the blasted window. At first he thought it was a reptile; then he heard the sharp, loud hoot. He spun around, in time to see the great bird’s taloned foot fling into the room an object that looked insanely like an egg. The thing skittered and bounded a short distance over the burned floor, straight to the girl beside the litter. She leaned across the litter and caught it; more, it seemed to keep it from hitting her beloved, than for any other reason.

The bird was already gone from the window. The girl, standing up like a frightened awkward doe, took a step backward with the unknown object clutched against her breast. She did not want the thing. Elslood saw in her face that she wanted only to get rid of it, to hide it, to get back again unnoticed to her job of nursing.

The soldier standing guard had yelled at the bird, which was gone again before he could do more. Now he grabbed at the girl. Though she made no attempt to flee, his hands only slid from her arms and clothing as he grabbed again and again, so he seemed to be attempting some sort of frantic caress. Frightened at running into magic, the soldier jumped back just as Elslood came stalking up.

He did not try to restrain the girl. She did not want to flee, not without her man. The birds had blundered, this time, trying to rescue the wrong prisoner. Towering over the terrified girl, Elslood did nothing but extend his open hand, palm up.

She gave the Stone to him. At that moment a great crash and a burst of wild yelling mounted up from somewhere at the base of the keep. The shock, first of suspicion and then of understanding, hit Elslood’s mind, as the girl dropped back on her knees beside the litter. Elslood’s skilled fingers swept hastily over the blurred and ancient carvings on the thing that she had given him: “… neither by spell nor by chain, neither by moat nor by cliff, can the holder of this Stone be confined. Not lock nor key nor bar can bind him in. Now powerless be all doors and sentries, all watchers and all walls;that are set to guard him round about….”

Elslood stood for a moment staring blankly at nothing, then on his face there grew a twisted smile: So, Loford. I was too contemptuous of you, and you have won after all.

Out on the roof terrace Ekuman was bellowing in bewildered rage, and on the stairs below the clamor of a panicked retreat already mounted closer. There were not enough soldiers left in the keep to hold it, with the great doors they had relied upon suddenly burst open.

The thought of Charmian brought all of Elslood’s energy back. Ignoring Ekuman’s shouts, ignoring everything else, the tall gray wizard ran from the Presence Chamber to the stair. On legs as springy as a youth’s he bounded down one flight, passing visiting Satraps who were reeling upward in retreat, grim-faced and bloody in their battle-harness.

Elslood left the stair on the level of the keep just below the roof-terrace. He raced down a corridor that was thick with the smell of dying flowers, and burst without ceremony into Charmian’s exquisitely decorated rooms. From the corridor he had heard women already screaming within.

The uproar ceased abruptly on his entrance. The enemy was not here yet; it was only some hair-pulling fight. During the fighting all the Ladies of the visiting Satraps had been gathered here for safety, here amid the mocking gaiety of massed flowers, in the rooms that were to have been tonight a bridal suite. And some of the Ladies and Charmian had fought. She raised her head now in the midst of an ugly wrestling group of them, her own face as near to ugliness as everit had been in Elslood’s eyes. Her long hair had just been pulled into a painful disarray, her face was swollen with her tears and rage -none of these things did Elslood wholly see. For he saw that his Princess was, for whatever reason, overjoyed to see him.

“Change them!” she shrieked at him. “Blast these bitches with your spells, wither them into hags and crones – ”

Elslood had no time to be subservient or soothing. He raised his voice, overriding hers even as his hands held out the Stone of Freedom to her.

“My Lady, take this! The ruler’s doom, but the blessing of the fugitive. As you pass from power to wretchedness, its constant effect will change from harm to help. It is all that I can give you now.”

Her face softened with fright at his tone. She took the Stone obediently. ” ‘Wretchedness’? Then we have lost?”

He had heard her voice sound just like that when she was ten years old. While the other women cowered away from him in terror, he took Charmian by the wrist and led her out of the suite. He knew where Ekuman’s secret passage of escape began, and how that passage ran, dark and windowless beneath the other stair all through the Castle’s wall, to emerge from under ground only when it was kilometers out in the eastern desert. And he knew of the secret cache at the tunnel’s end, the water and food and weapons laid by for just such a time as this.

Ekuman was waiting for them on the first curve of the stair above the Presence Chamber, near the entrance to the secret way.

“So,” the Satrap said, and not another word, at first. But the golden child-woman and the towering gray man both stood mute and quivering before him.

Charmian broke the silence. “Father?” she pleaded in her frightened child’s voice. And when Ekuman, who was staring at Elslood, did not move his eyes or speak, she pulled her hand free of Elslood’s grasp and darted forward, past her father, on up the stair and around its curve and out of sight.

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