Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Rolf’s sixteen-year-old eyes were sharp enough to pick out now the movement of leathery wings. The flying creatures of the Castle swelled slowly in his vision, the thin and spreading cloud their hundreds made came hurtling toward him. He knew that their eyes were sharper even than his. Almost daily now the reptiles came, picking over the land already so much robbed and torn by the new masters from the East; a land that had now grown hungry despite its richness, with every month more farmers killed or robbed and driven from their soil. With villages turned into prison camps, or emptied out to give the Satrap Ekuman the slave labor that he must have to build his Castle stronger still….

Did the foul grinning things fly ten or only five times faster than a man might run? With a big-boned hand Rolf put back a mop of his black hair, tilting back his head to watch as the vanguard of the reptiles now came nearly straight above him. A belt of rope around Rolf’s lean waist held up his trousers of good homespun; his shirt of the same stuff was open in the warmth of spring and work. He was of quite ordinary height, and spare as a knotted rope. His shoulders in their bony flatness looked wider than they were. Only his wrists and callused hands and his bare feet seemed to have been made a size or so too big to fit the rest of him.

In the distance the reptiles had seemed to be flying in a compact formation. But now Rolf could see that they had been scattered widely by their differences of course and speed. Here and there a single flyer would pause, coasting in wide flat circles, to scan something on the earth below. Sometimes then the reptile would straighten out again into effortless speed of flight, having decided that whatever it had seen was not worth dropping for.

But sometimes it would dive. Stoop. Plunge wing-folded, like a falling rock –

Above Rolf’s home! With a shock at his heart he saw the winged predator plummeting to strike. Before it vanished below the level of the trees Rolf was running toward it, toward his home. The clearing and the little house were invisible from here, more than a kilometer away over broken, scrub-grown country.

The reptile would be diving after the fowl in their coop, that must be it, though after the last attack Rolf’s mother had tried to hide the coop under a net of strings, woven with vines and branches to make a screen. Rolf’s father still lay abed with a crushed foot, mangled by a falling stone while he had been doing his stint of forced labor on the Castle. Small Lisa might be running out now as she had run out to challenge the last reptile, to strike with a broom or a hoe at a fanged intelligent killer who was nearly as big as she….

Between the field where he had been working and his home, Rolf’s path lay across land made unplow-able by its ravines and rocks. The familiar track wound shallowly uphill and down; it leaped and bounded under him now, with the big strides of his running. Never before had he gone over this path so fast. He kept looking ahead, and his fear kept growing, because of the strange fact that the raiding reptile had not yet risen, with prey or without.

Someone might have defied the Castle’s law and slain the thing-but who, and how? Rolf’s father could scarcely stand up from his bed. His mother? In obedience to another Castle law, the household had already been stripped of any weapon larger than a short-bladed kitchen knife. Little Lisa -Rolf pictured her, fighting with some garden implement against those teeth and talons, and he tried to run faster yet.

So it did not seem reasonable that the reptile should be dead. Yet neither should it be sitting at ease and unmolested, dining on some slaughtered hen. By now Rolf was close enough to his home to have heard sounds of fighting or alarm, but there was only ominous silence.

When he ran at last into the clearing and beheld the total ruin of the simple dwelling that had been his home, it seemed to Rolf that he knew already what he must find, that he had known it from his first sight of the stooping reptile.

And at the same time the truth was becoming unknowable. It was beyond anything that the mind could hold.

Smoke and flames, such as he had seen in the past devouring other houses destroyed by the invader, might have made the truth before him now more credible. But the only home Rolf could remember had been simply kicked apart, knocked to pieces like a child’s play-hut, like something not worth burning. It had been a small and simple structure; no great strength had been needed to topple its thatch and poles.

Rolf was scarcely aware of crying out. Or of the reptile, flapping up in heavy alarm from where it had been crouched over a dead fowl – one of the birds set free by the collapse of the coop when the flimsy house had been knocked down. The destruction had been done before the reptile came. By some roving party of the soldiers of the Castle-who else? No one in the Broken Lands knew when the invaders might come to him, or what might be done to him when they did.

Digging wildly in the shabby wreckage of the little house, Rolf uncovered shapes that seemed misplaced as in a dream. He found trivial things. Here was a cooking pot, the worn place on its handle somehow startling in its familiarity. And here…

A voice that had been shouting names, Rolf’s own voice, now fell silent. He stood looking down at something still and supine, a shape of flesh and hair and unfamiliar nakedness and blood. His mother had looked something like this thing of death. She had resembled this, this shape that now lay here amid all the other ruined things and shared all their stillness.

Rolf had to go on looking. Here was the body of a man, clothed, with a face very like his father’s. His father’s eyes, calm and unprotesting now, were opened toward the sky. No more fear and worry and held-in anger. No more answers to give a son. No more pain and sickness from a crushed foot. No more pain, though there was blood, and Rolf saw now that his father’s open shirt revealed red-lipped, curious wounds. Why yes, Rolf thought to himself, nodding, those are the wounds that a sword must make. He had never seen the like before.

He shouted no longer. He looked around for the reptile but it had gone. After he had searched on through what was left of the house and the few outbuildings, he came to a halt at the edge of the clearing. He realized vaguely that he was standing in an attitude of thoughtfulness, though in fact his mind was almost entirely blank. But he had to think. Lisa was not here. If she had been hiding nearby, surely all his noise would have brought her out by now.

He was distracted by the plodding into the clearing of the workbeast he had been plowing with. The animal had developed the trick of freeing itself from the harness if he left it standing alone in the field for any reason. When it came trotting into the home clearing now it halted at once, to stand shivering and whinnying at the strangeness of what it found. Rolf without thinking spoke to the animal and walked toward it, but it turned and bolted as if thrown into panic by the very ordinariness of his behavior amid this… yes, it was strange that he could be so calm.

His heart gave another leap and he began again a frenzied digging through the wreckage. But no, Lisa’s body was not here. He circled around the clearing, staring at everything as if to make sure of what it was. Then he began coursing in a widening circle through the surrounding woods. His mind made a motionless corpse of every fallen log. He began to call Lisa’s name again, softly. Either she had run far away, or else the soldiers had…

It was not believable, it was not possible that the soldiers could have come here and committed all these horrors, and he, Rolf, had remained out in the fields calmly plowing. So it had not really happened at all. Because it was not possible. And all the while he knew that it was true.

… Or else the soldiers had taken Lisa with them. If the murders were possible, so might that be. Rolf found himself back in the clearing, averting his eyes from the nakedness of the thing that had been his mother. He did not let himself think of how her clothes had been taken from her, or why, though those also were things he knew. The men from the Castle. The soldiers. The invaders. The East.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred