Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

As for being able to run, Mewick’s battle-hatchet had seen to that. And as for covering his eyes -well, he was still Chup. Raised on his elbows, he kept his gaze fixed steadily upon the smoky image coalescing in the close space before him. Outside the wind moaned softly, relieved of bearing that which had come in to Chup. Rain began to spatter on the lean-to.

Inside the hovel, space changed and distance grew as the face of the demon began to take its shape. Chup could scarcely make out on it anything like a human feature, and yet he knew it was a face. As it became a little more distinct there grew in Chup the fear that he might understand what he was looking at, that at last he might perceive the features rightly and that when he did they would be too horrible to see.

Nothing but demons could shake him like this. Now his eyes demanded, if not closing, at least to be allowed to slide out of focus. With a sigh he at last let them do so.

Only then, as if it had waited for that token yielding, did the demon speak. Its voice was a skeletal hand, searching furtively through dead leaves: “Lord Chup.”

The power tapped by this pronouncing of his name made its image plainer in his sight. With a shudder he gave up trying to face down the thing, and let himself sprawl back on his rude bed, a fore arm flung over his eyes. “I am Chup. But Lord no longer.”

“But Lord again, mayhap.”The dry leaves rustled, stirred by finger-bones. “Your unclaimed bride, the Lady Charmian, does send you greeting now through me.”

“A greeting -from where?”

“From her place of power and safety in the Black Mountains.”

Of course, the demon could be lying. It could have come merely to torment a cripple, like some nasty child on a romp; sometimes no meanness was too small for them to bother with. But no, on second thought. It would not have come so lightly to this castle now, filled as the place was with an army of wizards and warriors of the West; even demons had to heed some dangers. It was here, then, on important business.

Without lifting his arm from his eyes, Chup asked: “What does my Lady want of me now?”

The image of the demon’s face began to form inexorably inside Chup’s eyelids, under his forearm that could not keep it out. Moving what did not seem to be a mouth, it said: “She wishes to share with you, as with one worthy of her, her present power and glory and delight.”

Now whether he opened his eyes or shut them, the demon’s face, like some hideous afterimage, remained the same. “Power?” Suddenly shaking-angry, Chup raised his head and glared. “Power is mine, you say?” His enemies had not heard a groan or a complaint from him in half a year, but now the fullness of his bitterness burst out. “Then show me that I have just the power to move my legs -can you do that?”

Below the monstrous face the darkness worked. There appeared a pair of hands, roughly manlike but deformed and huge. They were visible in the light that sprang out when a cover was removed from an object held in one of them. It was a large, thick goblet or bowl, dark itself but holding a bursting warmth of multicolored light. That glow ate away the darkness, and seemed to half-obliterate the demon’s image, and yet it did not dazzle when Chup looked directly at it.

The demon’s free hand reached for Chup. He uttered an involuntary grunt, but did not feel the repulsive contact he expected. There was only an impersonal force that spun his body halfway round. Now he lay face down, with his dead feet still pointed at the demon. On his back, right in the old unhealthy wound where Mewick’s hatchet had bitten at his spine, Chup now felt a cold touch as of icy water. A moment later there followed something, some kind of shock, that might have been pain of terrible intensity but was ended so quickly that even the timidest man could scarcely have cried out.

When that clean shock had passed, Chup realized that it had burned away the nagging gnawing that had lived in the wound almost since it was made. Before he could think beyond that point, the next change came, a dazzling tingling down the great nerves of both thighs. Automatically he tried to move his legs. Still they would not stir; it was long months since those wasted, shrunken muscles had contracted, save for painful and uncontrollable twitchings. But even now he felt those muscles try.

With his arms he turned himself again upon his back. The demon, withdrawn slightly, was recapping the vessel from which it seemed to have poured his healing. Warmth and light vanished. Chup again faced only a distorted presence, dim in darkness. The only sounds in the hovel were those of rain and autumn wind, and Chup’s lonely, ragged breathing that now gradually grew steadier.

“Is this a true healing?” he asked at length. And then: “Why have you done it?”

“A true healing, sent toyou byyourbride, thatyou may come to her.”

“Oh? Why, then, she is very gracious.” Chup could feel the coursing life down to his toes; he tried them, but they were still too stiff to move. He did not dare accept this miracle as true; not yet. “She is full of unexpected kindness. Come, messenger, I am no child. This is some prank. Or -what does she need me for?”

With the speed of a blow, the demon-face came looming over him. He was Chup-but he was no more than human. He could not, with all his will, keep from turning his head away and lifting up an arm as if to ward a blow. His stomach, that had never troubled him before a fight, now knotted in spasm.

His eyes clenched uselessly upon the demon-image looking through their lids.

Unhurriedly, the voice of dry leaves scraped at him. “I am not to be mocked, lord though you were, and lord you are to be. Not to be called ‘messenger’ in insolence. Much less shall you scorn those who sent me here.”

Those? Of course, Charmian herself was no magician, to have the ordering of demons. She would again have charmed a wizard or two into helping her, with whatever scheme she played at… The demon would not let him think. He was to be punished for his disrespect. He had the sensation that the demon was starting to peel away the outer layers of his mind, with no more effort or concern than a man toying with an insect. They could change men. If it kept on it would turn him into something far less than a cripple. Unless they really needed him -he cried out. He could not think. He was Chup, but he could not stand against an avalanche.

“You are not to be mocked,” he whispered, through clenched teeth. “Nor are your masters to be scorned.”

The effortless onslaught faded. When he was master of his eyes again, there was nothing to be seen but the bearable dim face.

The demon then began impersonally to tell him why he was needed. “Among the forces of the West now gathering in this castle, there is a peasant youth named Rolf, born here in the Broken Lands.”

There could have been more than one fitting that description, but Chup had no doubt who was meant. “I know him. Short and dark. Tough and wiry.”

“That is his appearance. With him he now carries, always and everywhere, a thing that must be taken from him. It must be brought to the Lady Charmian -and to no one else -in the Black Mountains, and soon. When the youth goes into battle, what we seek may be destroyed or lost. Here the power of the West is too strong for me or any other to take the thing by force; stealth must be used.”

“What is it?”

“A small thing in size. A knot woven from a woman’s yellow hair. A charm of the kind that men and women use when they seek from one another what some of them call love.”

Yellow hair. Charmian’s own? He waited for the demon to go on.

It rasped: “Tomorrow your legs will bear your weight, and soon they will be strong enough for battle. You are required to get this charm before the Western army marches – ”

“They may move any day!”

“-and bring it to your Lady. Men in her service will be patrolling in the desert, a few kilometers to the east, watching for you. Beyond that you must expect no further help.” The hugeness of the demon’s face was growing less; Chup saw how far the space beneath his slanting roof had stretched, now it was coming back.

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