Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The dry voice too was fading. “I will not come to you here again. Except to punish you for failure.” And then the face and voice were gone, the hovel it had occupied was ordinary. The wind outside went howling loud again. Chup lay without moving until it had become an ordinary sound, burdened with no more than the rain.

The rain and clouds delayed first entry of the morning’s light into the long and crowded barrack-room. When Rolf woke all was still in darkness, round him the familiar jumble of packs, equipment, weapons, and bunks and hammocks with their load of snoring bodies.

He who had roused him, without touch or word, stood at the foot of Rolfs bunk, a tall and bulky figure in the gloom.

“Loford? What – ” And then Rolf guessed what had brought the wizard to him. “My sister? Is there something?”

“There may be. Come.” Loford turned away. Rolf was into his clothes and had caught him up before Loford reached the door.

The wizard turned to a stair, and as they climbed the rising turns of stone toward the Castle roof, he explained in a low voice: “My brother has arrived. He is speaking much of technology and how we may be able to use it. Of course I mentioned your experience, and your handiness along that line, and he was interested. I told him also how I have tried with my poor spells to learn what happened to your sister. Beside my brother I am a backwoods dabbler. Certain powers that I never could have commanded, he has called up and set to work. Understand, the answer we get may be incomplete, or…”

“Or may not be one I want to hear.” They were starting up the last steep stair, leading to the battlemented roof of what had been Ekuman’s private tower. “Still I thankyou. It will not be your fault if the news is bad.”

Emerging on the roof, Rolf pulled his jacket tighter against the dying drift of rain, and through habit, without thinking, made sure that something in an inner pocket was safe. Mist hung like wet garments round the tower, and no sentry had been posted here in this hour before the dawn. Near one battlement a tripod supported a brazier in which glowed a green, unearthly-looking fire. Besides the fire a motionless figure in wizard’s robes stood looking out away from the Castle, into the rainy night.

Loford raised one finger to his lips, gave Rolf a warning glance, then led him forward. The green fire flared up once, the waiting figure turned, tall and spare. Hood and shadow concealed the face of Loford’s brother. His fingers moved as if he tested some invisible quality of the air. Arrayed on the paved roof around him, Rolf now saw, were some of the things that good m’agicians used: the fruits and flowers of autumn, what looked like water and milk in little jars, small heaps of earth and sand, plain wooden twigs, some bent, some straight. The green unsteady light had changed them all, but they looked innocent and simple still.

The hooded figure beckoned, with a turning of its head, and Rolf went to stand beside it, still keeping silence as he had been signed to do. Now, looking out across the battlement into the east wind and its drifting rain, he saw the clouds and tendrils of lethargic mist speed faster past him. In a moment it seemed to Rolf that he stood on the prow of a racing ship of stone, driving into a gale. A vase holding flowers was blown in from the parapet, to land at Rolf’s feet with a tiny smash.

Rolf put out his hands to grip the stone before him. The man beside him raised a long arm, pointing nearly dead ahead. Just at that point the driving mist flew faster still, became a gray smooth blur that was not mist, and then tore soundlessly from top to bottom. Rolf peered into the opening, leaned into it, and then for him the wind and rain were gone. A vision engulfed him while it seemed that he hung bodiless in space.

A forest clearing, that he had never thought to see again. A house of thatch and poles, simple and small, the garden, the familiar path, fowl in a pen beside the house. The vision was utterly silent, but it held life and movement, sun and shadow shifting with a breeze. Then in the shaded doorway a dim figure moved, one hand with a gesture that Rolf had seen ten thousand times wiping itself on his mother’s familiar ragged apron.

Rolf cried out then, as in a nightmare, knowing and enduring the worst before it happened. And someone, disembodied too or at least invisible, was gripping his arms, speaking with Loford’s kind whisper in his ear: “It is all written! All unchangeable! They cannot see or hear you. You can only watch, and learn.”

His mother had shaded her eyes, looking out; then she stiffened with alarm, hurried inside, and shut the useless door. Rolf did not know how he could keep watching. But he had no choice. He must learn Lisa’s fate. And he must learn who they were, the ones who came. Soldiers of the East, of course. But Rolf wanted their faces and their names.

In the foreground of the vision now the first of them appeared, a mounted trooper wearing black and bronze, his back to Rolf. Behind him came another and another, the beginning of a line. There were six of them in all. Their mouths were wide, with soundless shouts or laughter, their weapons were held ready. And now the door was opening, Rolf’s mother standing there again.

A time came presently when Rolf could no longer look. He shut his eyes and floated in a void, but could not flee the thought of what was happening. At length there came what must be Loford’s hand, large and unseen, to clamp his chin and shake his head gently, trying to force him now to see.

The hut had already been contemptuously kicked to bits. The bodies of his mother and father were hidden in its small ruin, for the son to find when he came running home. Here was Lisa, twelve years old, long hair still neatly bound up in peasant style but her garments torn and smeared, her face as pale and blank as death, hoisted awkwardly up before a soldier’s saddle. Wiping blades and straightening clothing, the marauders were almost ready to leave. He who carried Lisa must be their officer, for he alone wore half-armor, and he rode the tallest steed. Now as he turned his mount out of the yard toward the road, he showed Rolf his youthful, unlined, and harmless-looking face. There was a soft, proud, almost pouting look about the mouth.

If she were seriously injured, dying, they would not have bothered carrying her off. “… alive?” So choked was his throat, Rolf had to try twice before he could speak intelligibly. “Is she alive now? Will I find her?”

Loford, at a little distance, murmured something, and Rolf understood that his question was being passed on. Then Loford brought back an answer, which he whispered to Rolf slowly, like one who did not understand the message he conveyed: “She lives. You must get help from the tall broken man.”

“What? Who?” This time there was no reply. Rolf drifted, bodiless and alone. “Then what of those who took her?” he demanded. “There were six. How many of them still breathe?”

The vision changed. Rolf now beheld a portion of a simple, unpaved road, running through green, wooded land. Rolf recognized the spot as one near where his home had been.

A trooper in black and bronze came riding into Rolf’s field of view. Gone were his cheeks and eyes and nose, and his jaws of weathered bone gaped wide, showing missing teeth. What might have been dried leather clung in fragments to his skull and to his skeleton’s hands. Rolf understood that he was answered regarding this man’s fate.

The second mounted trooper hove intb view. He grinned, for he too was a skeleton, although it seemed he had good grounds for peevishness. Straight before him there extended the long handle of a farmer’s pitchfork, long tines vanishing in his tunic’s front, and coming out his back as fine, sharp points. Rolf had one third his answer now.

The third wore flesh upon his bones, and breathed, but only in a vision could anyone so wasted sit on a beast and ride. His scalp was marked by an old wound, his eyes rolled vacantly. The fourth man came, a handless skeleton: had he survived his maiming, and fled with other of Ekuman’s people to the East, thereto discover no one could be bothered feeding him? The fifth man rode past jauntily, a hatchet buried in his fleshless skull. The overthrow of Eastern power in the Broken Lands had taken heavy toll.

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