Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The tallest beast came last, with Lisa still carried unconscious before the saddle. She lived-but Rolf saw with a shock that she was changed. Her body looked the same, and her ragged garments and her dark-brown, bound up hair. But her face had been transformed, from its familiar homeliness to beauty that awoke an echo from Rolf’s dreams and made him catch his breath. This was the girl whom he had called his sister, yet it was not. He called her name out, once, and then fell silent, marveling.

Her captor, too, was live and whole. His full-fleshed image with its proud, bored face watched indifferently the ghastly capering before him of his slaughtered men.

“Does he live, then?” Rolf demanded of the air.

He will be slain and he will live, he thought the answer came.

“Loford?” The vision was suddenly spinning before Rolf like a reflection in a whirlpool. He staggered, drew in a deep breath, and found himself firmly in his own body once more, standing on the solid Castle stone. Loford and Loford’s brother were close beside him, and the light of day had come, to make the green fire ghostly dim. The last torn ribbons of the fog were swirling far above them now, borne by what seemed no more than a natural wind.

A wizard’s or a statue’s face, that of Loford’s brother, lined but somehow ageless, loomed over Rolf. “Call me Gray,” the statue said. “You will understand I cannot casually use my real name. How is it with you?”

“With me? How would it be? Did you not see?” Then Rolf felt Loford’s grip upon his arm, and fought to calm himself. “I am sorry. I give you thanks, and ask your pardon, Gray.”

“I grant it,” Gray said solemnly.

Rolf turned from one of the wizards to the other.

“She lives, then. But where? Tell me, could he still have her with him? The one who took her?”

“I do not know,” said Gray. “You heard the only guide that we were given to further information: ‘get help from the tall broken man.’ I expect that will prove decipherable to you. I am not sure what powers we reached today, but at least they were not definitely evil, and I would tend to trust them. Though they were strange… it seemed to me I spoke with one who held the lightning in his hands…”

A little later, Rolf stood on the tower alone save for the sentry who had come with day to scan the desert. While he was deep in thought, gazing out over the complex crowded courtyards of the castle, Rolf saw a familiar figure by the newly rebuilt main gate in the outer wall, dragging crippled legs out of a beggar’s lean-to.

A broken man, who once was tall.

When it had become apparent that Chup was not going to die, he had been placed under close guard by the new masters of the land. Thomas and other leaders of the West had come many times to question him. Chup had told them nothing. They had not tried to force answers from him; new to revolution and to power, they probably were not sure what questions needed answers, nor what information Chup was likely to possess. Probably he could not have told them much of any use. He knew little of Somthe Dead, of Zapranoth the Demon-Lord, and of the Beast-Lord Draffut, the powers of the Black Mountains, two hundred kilometers distant across the desert. They were the powers that the folk of the Broken Lands and the other newly freed satrapies must fear, and must eventually defeat if they were to retain their freedom. Unlike most others of his rank in the Eastern hierarchy, Chup had never formally pledged himself to the East, never passed through the dark and little-known ordeals and ceremonies. He had never visited the Black Mountains.

A few of the Free Folk, as the successful Western rebels in the Broken Lands did sometimes call themselves, had perhaps been willing to show some mercy to a fallen enemy, at least to one who had never been known to dabble in pointless cruelty himself. Perhaps for that reason Chup’s life had been spared. Chup himself thought it more likely that after the physicians and the wizards had looked many times at the ill-healing wound on his back, had jabbed pins and burning sticks at his useless unfeeling withering legs, and had decided that no herb nor surgeon’s knife nor wizard’s spell could ever mend what Mewick’s flashing hatchet-blade had severed, then the Free Folk of the West were quite content for him to live. Existence as a cripple among enemies might well be thought a punishment worse than death.

So they let him go, or rather one day they dragged him out of the cell in which he had been guarded. Explaining nothing to him, they simply dragged him out and walked away. When he was left alone, he used his hands to drag himself on. When he got as far as the great new gate where the road came in through the massive outer wall, he could see the empty distances the road ran to, and found no point in trying to crawl on.

When Chup had been sitting for half a day beside the gate, preparing himself to starve, there came one he had never seen before, an old man, to leave beside him a chipped cup with some water in it. Having set this down as if he were doing something shameful, and hardly looking at Chup, the old man walked quickly on.

Thinking it highly unlikely that anyone would trouble to poison him in his present state, Chup drank. Somewhat later, a passing wagoneer, perhaps a stranger, looked down from his high seat, perhaps saw only a beggar instead of a fallen enemy, and tossed Chup a half-gnawed bone.

Chup propped his torso erect against the castle wall and chewed. He had never been too finicky about his food when in the field. Turning his head to the right, he could squint across two hundred kilometers of desert to a horizon darkened by the Black Mountains. Even if he could somehow get there, the East that he had served had little use for the crippled and the failed. That was of course quite right and realistic, fitting with the way the world was made. Where else? A few kilometers to the west was the sea, to north and south, as here, his former enemies were in power.

The village just below the Castle was in ruins from the fighting, but people were already moving back and rebuilding. The road here promised to be a busy one. It seemed that if he must try to live on handouts he was not too likely to reach a better place than this.

By the night of that first day he had gathered scraps of wood and had begun to build his lean-to near the gate.

On the morning after the demon’s visit, Chup had life back in his legs. Before emerging from his shelter he had tested them, gritting his teeth and laughing with the glorious pain of freely coursing blood and thawing muscles. Whatever the source of the healing magic, it was extremely powerful. He could bend each knee slightly, and move all his toes. His fingers told him that the wound upon his back had shriveled to a scar, as smoothly healed as any of his other battlemarks.

Now he must earn what the East had given him. He knew them too well to think for a moment that the demon’s parting threat of punishment for failure had been an idle one.

Emerging at the usual hour from his shelter, he took care to give no slightest sign that anything of moment had occurred during the night. The light drizzle was fading as he dragged himself to his usual station at one side of the great gate, which had just been opened for the morning. As usual, he held in his lap his beggar’s bowl, chipped pottery salvaged from a dump. His pride was too great to be destroyed by taking alms; it had been easier because he had never been forced to really beg. The weather had been good, and food plentiful throughout the summer. People came to look at him, a lord humbled, a villain punished, a terrible fighter beaten. People whom he never asked or thanked put in his bowl small coins orbits of food. There were no other beggars at the gate, and not many in the land. Western soldiers maimed in the fighting were still being cared for as heroes, and the others of the East, of less importance than Chup, had evidently been slain to the last man.

Sometimes people came to gloat, silently or loudly, at his downfall. He did not look at them or listen. They were no great bother. The world was like that. But he was not going to give them the satisfaction of dying, starving, or even showing discomfort, if he could help it.

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