Often it was the soldiers, even those who had fought against him, who gave him food and drink. When they spoke to him civilly he answered them in the same way. Daily he dragged himself to get water at their barracks well.
This morning, Chup had hardly taken his place beside the gate, when he saw the youth Rolf pacing across the outer courtyard toward him. Rolf stepped quickly but deliberately, frowning at the puddles, evidently on serious business. Yes, he was coming straight toward Chup. The two of them had not spoken since Chup was a Lord and the other a weaponless rebel. This visit today could not be coincidence; the demon must have somehow arranged it. Chup’s chance was coming sooner than he had dared to hope.
Rolf wasted no time in preliminaries. “It may be you can tell me something that I want to know,” he began. “About a matter that is not likely to mean anything to you, one way or the other. Of course I’ll be willing to give you something, within reason, in return for information.”
Not for the first time, Chup found himself somewhat taken with this youth, who came neither bullying the cripple nor trying to be sly. “My wants these days are few. I have food, and little need of anything else. What could you give me?”
“I expect you’ll be able to think of something.”
Chup almost smiled. “Suppose I did. What must I tell you in return?”
“I want to find-my sister.” Speaking rapidly, saying nothing of his sources of information, Rolf described briefly the time and circumstances of Lisa’s vanishing, her appearance, and that of the proud-faced officer.
Chup scowled. The tale awoke real memories, a little hazy though they were. Better and better, he would not have to invent. “What makes you think that I can tell you anything?”
“I have good reason.”
Grunting in a way that might mean anything or nothing, Chup stared past Rolf again as if he had forgotten him. He must not seem eager to do business.
The silence stretched until Rolf broke it impatiently. “Why should you not help me? I think you no longer have any great love for anyone in the East – ” He broke off suddenly, like one aware of blundering. Then went on, in a slower voice. “Your bride is there, I know. I didn’t -I didn’t mean to say anything about her.”
Here was a peculiar near-apology. Chup looked up. Rolf had lost the aspect of a determined, bitter man. He had become an awkward boy, speaking of a lady in the manner of one who cherished secret thoughts of her.
Rolf stumbled on. “I mean, she-the Lady Charmian -couldn’t be harmed in any way by what you tell me of my sister or her kidnapper.” One of Rolfs big hands rose, perhaps unconsciously, to touch his jacket, as if for reassurance that something carried in an inner pocket was safe. “I know you were her husband,” he blurted awkwardly, and then ran out of words. He stared at Chup with what seemed a mixture of anxiety, hatred, and despair.
“I am her husband,” Chup corrected drily.
Rolf came near blushing, or did blush; it was hard to tell, with his dark skin. “You are. Of course.”
Though Chup preferred the sword, he could use cleverness. “I am so in name only, of course. You came breaking in the Castle gates before Charmian and I could do more than drink from the same winecup.”
Rolf looked somewhat relieved, and utterly distracted now, despite himself, from whatever his original business with Chup had been. He sat down facing Chup. He wanted, needed, to ask Chup something more, but it took much hesitation before he could get it out.
“Was she really… I mean, there have always been bad things said about the Lady Charmian, things I can’t believe…”
Chup had to conceal amusement, a problem he had not faced in quite a while. He managed, though. “You mean, was she as evil as they say?” Chup looked very sober. “You can’t believe all that you hear, young one. Things were very dangerous for her in the Castle.” Though not as dangerous as they were for others, living with her. “She had to pretend to be something different than what she truly was; and she learned to dissemble very well.” Rolf was nodding, and seemed relieved; it amused Chup to have answered him with perfect truth.
“So I have thought,” said Rolf. “She seemed so…”
“Yes. So she could not have been like her father and the others.”
Of course, Chup thought, suddenly understanding the boy’s monumentally innocent stupidity about the Lady Charmian. He was befuddled by the love-charm that he carried; the same that Chup would have to carry, later. However, time enough then to cross that bridge…
Rolf was saying, more calmly: “Nor were you, I think, as bad as Ekuman and the others. I knowyou were a satrap of the East, oppressing people. But you were not as vile as most of them.”
“The most gracious compliment I have enjoyed in some time.” Chup rubbed a flea-bitten shoulder against the cool, damp stone of the sunless wall. The moment seemed favorable for getting down to business. “So, you would like me to tell you where your sister may be found. I can’t.”
Much of Rolf’s original businesslike manner returned. “But you know something?”
“Something that you’ll want to hear.”
“And, since you are in earnest, I will tell you what I want in return.”
“All right, let’s hear that first.”
Chup let his voice fall into a grim monotone. “If I can help it, I do not want to die like this, rotting by centimeters. Give me a rusty knifeblade, so I can at least feel like an armed man, and take me out into the desert and leave me there. The great birds are gone south on their migration, but some other creature will find me and oblige me with a finish fight. Or let thirst kill me, or a mirage-plant. But I am loath to beg myself to death before my enemies.” It came out quite convincingly, he thought. Yesterday, there would have been more truth in it than fiction.
Rolf frowned. “Why must it be the desert, if you can’t bear to live? Why not here?”
“No. Dying here would be a giving in, to you who’ve made a beggar of me. Out there I’ll have gotten away from you.”
So long did Rolf sit silent, pondering, that Chup felt sure the bait was taken. However, the fish was not yet caught. Chup volunteered: “If you want to make sure of my finish, bring along a pair of swords. I think the chances would now be somewhat in your favor. I’ll tell you what I can about your sister before we fight.”
If Rolf was outraged by this challenge from a cripple, he did not show it. Once away from the subject of Charmian, he was adult again. Again he was silent for a time, watching Chup closely. Then he said: “I’ll take you to the desert. If you lie to me about my sister, or try any other sort of foolishness, I won’t leave you in the desert, dead or living. Instead I’ll drag you back here, dead or living, to be displayed beside this gate.”
Chup, keeping his face impassive, shifted his gaze into the distance. In a moment Rolf grunted, got to his feet, and strode away.
In midafternoon Rolf came back, leading a load-beast. The look of the animal suggested it might be a reject from the Castle stable that could not be expected to give useful service in the coming campaign. Slung on it were several containers that might hold food and water. Rolf had also armed himself, but not with two swords. A serviceable sword and a long, keen knife hung from separate belts cinched round his waist.
The time since morning had tested Chup’s patience to the limit. First, of course, because he was not sure his fish was wholly caught. Secondly, the urge to move his legs had become almost overwhelming. Under his ragged trousers their muscles were far looser, and even seemed thicker, than they had been yesterday. The ache and tingle of returning life had turned into an itch for movement.
Rolf said nothing but halted his feeble-looking animal just beside Chup. Then he came to catch Chup under the armpits, and with wiry strength heave his half-wasted frame erect. The gate sentries turned their heads to watch, as did some passersby. But no one seemed to care if Chup departed. He was a prisoner no more, only a beggar.
Once standing, Chup gripped the saddle with his strong hands and raised himself, while Rolf guided his dangling legs into the stirrups. Rolf asked: “Are you going to be able to hang on, there? I wouldn’t want you to fall and split your head. Not just yet.”
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