Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“I thought it was you who had betrayed me,” said Ekuman. His eyes locked Elslood’s. His face was granite. “When the soldier fell in his strangling fit, I thought so. Yet I delayed, wanting to make sure.” The Satrap shook his head in wonderment. “You may have destroyed me -for nothing. For an infatuation.”

Elslood had long schooled himself, not to bear fear, but to avoid it. So it struck him now as a sudden overburdening weight would hit the muscles of a man grown slack and soft with long neglect of exercise. Looking now at Ekuman, he could see his own certain fate, and he felt the great fear rushing up like vomit from his middle to his head. It could not be that this thing was really going to be done to him, no, not now; there was always one more cranny of escape….

In a defensive reflex Elslood began the casting of a spell of his own, but he could not finish it. Great as his powers were, they were helpless against those that Ekuman had been given, for this one purpose, by Som the Dead in the Black Mountains. Still Elslood could not comprehend that this was really happening. Unbelievingly he watched as the Satrap’s hand made the gesture of power, he listened as Ekuman’s voice uttered the one necessary word.

The Elslood’s vision left him -for a while. He still remained conscious. It seemed to him that he could feel the water gushing from every pore of his body, the bulk that made him tall and strong rushing away in liquid and in steam to leave him infant-sized. His brain knew that it shrank, keeping in close proportion with his every other organ. More horrible yet, he knew even as it happened that his mind was shrinking with his brain. The intellect wais aware, step by step, of its own maiming.

His senses were disorganized then, but they came quickly back to him, to his new-shaped body muffled under the heap of human clothes collapsed upon the floor. The thing that regained sense had forgotten what magic was, and even speech. But its memory still held, and knew that it would always hold, the knowledge that once it had been man.

Ekuman kicked at the creature and it flopped away from him in terror, struggling to master its new webbed feet. It croaked and bounded and hopped away, as if it would flee its very self. The Satrap wasted no more thought on it, for the sounds of violence on the stair below were drawing nearer.

He spun around and followed the way his daughter had taken, into the secret passage. He took care that the door was tight shut behind him. Charmian’s footsteps had already gone ahead out of hearing in the darkness. Ekuman followed, needing no light. But he was scarcely thinking of Charmian. He was not heading for the desert, no, not yet. There was a chance yet of his saving all.

His mind was still fixed on the Elephant. He had been watching from atop the keep when the fearless Chup entered the Elephant and drove out the youth. Then he had watched it standing open, riderless, watched balanced between rage and satisfaction when he realized that none of his men who could reach it dared to enter.

Ekuman would dare anything now. His secret passage had another door, hard by the ruined gate where Elephant sat.

When someone’s hands inside the keep took up the Prisoner’s Stone, and its power burst in the great door of the keep, Rolf was one of the first of the Free Folk to enter. In the lower halls of the keep he used his sword -as inconclusively as before. But there were stronger fighters at Rolf’s sides. The enemy was rapidly pushed back, cut down, being taken by surprise, being outnumbered now in the stronghold where they had thought themselves finally secure.

Rolf joined others then in pressing up the stairway, fighting now against the last desperate defense of the visiting Satraps and their bodyguards. Chup was not among them. Rolf had not seen Chup, nor Mewick either, since the two of them had begun their duel in the outer court.

When resistance had failed completely, Rolf, who knew the lay of the land better than anyone else, led the advance into the upper level of the keep. Sword in hand, he was the first of the Free Folk to enter the Presence Chamber, the room from which he had been taken under guard only a few hours earlier. His knees quivered with his relief when he saw that Sarah was alive and unhurt. She was still where Rolf had seen her last, kneeling beside Nils’s stretcher-as if all the time between had found her immune to danger and had flowed around her.

She raised her eyes joyfully at the entrance of the Free Folk-but when she recognized Rolf under the blood and grime that masked his face, her eyes turned cold. Nils still breathed; he turned drained but living eyes to his rescuers as they entered.

Thomas swept his glance around the chamber, then faced Sarah. “Did you see which way our gracious Lord Ekuman retired?”

She could only shake her head, no. The Free Folk spread out, searching. Some went out onto the roof-terrace. Others poked among the hangings on the wall and tested corpses with their blades.

Rolf chose to follow the stairs that went up to the top-most level of the tower. Only a few steps up, a bundle of clothing lay. He lifted the upper garment with his sword. It was a long gray robe. It caught at his memory, but for the moment he could not remember who….

A small circlet woven of the sun fell from the robe and dropped upon the stair just at his feet. It flashed across his mind how cold and deadly Sarah’s eyes had been just now, looking at him. Her hair was dark, not at all like this. It was Sarah that he loved, so why should he bend swiftly and pick up this yellow charm?

The circlet was soft and flawless and intricately knotted, and he thought he could feel power in it. But why should he quickly put it into the inner pocket of his shirt?

Thomas came up beside him then, and together they went on up the stair. When they saw the richness of the furnishings in the apartment at the top they felt certain, it was Ekuman’s. But the Satrap was not there. In a small anteroom two harem girls were cowering; they screamed in terror when Rolf and Thomas came bursting in on them.

“Where is he?” Thomas demanded, but the girls could only shake their heads in fear. Rolf noticed that one of them had red hair, the other brown. It seemed there had been only one girl in the Castle, perhaps in all the land, with hair of the particular golden –

Outside there burst up a roaring cheer, drawing Rolf and Thomas to a window. On the roof-terrace there were torches enough to show them how Ekuman’s banner of black and bronze was being hauled down, torn to ribbons, spat and stamped upon.

The sight was witnessed by others, the last of Ekuman’s troops to hold a portion of the field. These were the lancers, still huddled together around the Elephant. The fall of the tower, attested by the tearing down of the flag, was enough for them. They abandoned their wounded, and some of them their weapons, and they turned and fled.

Here high in the tower the windows were broader and shallower than those in the lower walls. Here Thomas could lean out and strike his fist upon the sill. “Fewer of ’em than we thought! We might have got to the Elephant with one more push. Well, it’s ours now-”

The fire that had started with the breaching of the gate was still spreading slowly among the sheds just inside the outer Castle wall; so there was firelight enough in the courtyard to let Rolf and Thomas see the sudden lifting of a paving stone from below. A man’s head and shoulders rose out of the ground, followed by the rest of a tall spare body. The man turned his head this way and that, then sprinted for the Elephant.

“It’s Ekuman!” Even at this distance, Rolf knew he could not be mistaken.

Thomas was shouting something incoherent. Ekuman’s figure seemed to grow tiny as it raced beside the Elephant’s bulk. The Satrap found the hand-grips, climbed, scrambled through the light-circle of the open doorway, reached back to pull the door’s round slab closed behind him. He was only just in time -a farmer broke his pitchfork hurling it at the door, and another came running up quickly to beat on the door uselessly with an axe. But Ekuman was now established where no man might pluck him out; and Rolf knew how ready were the reins for the Satrap’s hands, or anyone’s, to take them up.

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