Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“I can manage.” Chup had forgotten how high riding raised a man. Rolf took the loadbeast by the bridle, and they were off, down the sloping switchback road that led first to the village and then the world.

Rolf walked with long strides beside the load-beast’s head: a position that let him keep the corner of one eye on Chup. Chup, for his part, breathed deeply with the joy of seeing the Castle gradually recede behind him, and the greater joy of surreptitiously testing his legs in the stirrups and feeling them respond.

Before they reached the village, Rolf turned off the road. He led the animal down a slope of wasteland to the beginning of the desert. The autumn day had cleared, and had grown almost hot. Ahead of them, gently rolling flatness shimmered with mirage. Sparsely marked with vegetation, it stretched on to the horizon, where towered the Black Mountains, jagged and enigmatic. Rolf had chosen the only direction which led quickly to solitude, and was heading straight east from the Castle.

Men in the service of the Lady Charmian were to be patrolling in the desert. That might or might not mean some help for Chup. He could not count on any.

Neither Chup nor Rolf spoke again until the Castle had fallen nine or ten kilometers behind them. At this distance it plainly overlooked them still, from its perch on the low flank of a mountain pass. But the eastward of this point where they now were, the lay of the land was such that a man going east could take advantage of declivities and brush, and perhaps never see the Castle or be seen from it again.

Here Rolf stopped the beast, and, still warily holding its bridle, turned to Chup. “Tell me what you know.”

“And after that?”

Touching a water bag slung on the animal, Rolf said: “This I’ll leave with you, and the knife. The beast goes back with me, of course. You won’t be able to get anywhere, or to stay alive out here for very long, but that’s what you asked for.”

Chup was curious. “How do you plan to judge whether or not what I tell you is the truth?”

“You have no cause to seek revenge on me in particular.” Rolf paused. “And I don’t think you lie just for the sake of lying; do harm just for the sake of doing it. Also, I already know, on good authority, a few things more than what I’ve told you about what happened to my sister. Whatever you tell me should match with that.”

Chup nodded several times. He had intended anyway to tell Rolf the truth; he could almost regret that Rolf would not live long enough to benefit.

“The name of the man you want is Tarlenot,” Chup said. “He served as an escort commander and a courier between the Black Mountains and outlying satrapies. He may still; whether he still is alive I have no idea.”

“What did he look like?”

“His face, as you described it. I’ve heard that women found him handsome, and I think he shared their view. He was young, strong, of middling height. An uncommonly good fighter, so I’ve heard.”

“And when did you see him last?” Rolf might have had his questions on a written list.

“I can tell you that exactly enough.” Chup turned his face to the north, remembering. “It was on the last night of my journey southward from my own satrapy, coming here to the Broken Lands to take my charming bride.

“I came on river barge down the Dolles, escorted by two hundred armed men. Tarlenot, with five or six, going northward, met us on the last day before we reached the Castle. He and his troop, being so few in unfriendly country, were glad to spend the night in our encampment.”

“Who or what was he escorting then?” Rolf, listening eagerly, leaned forward. But he was not near enough, as yet, for Chup to lunge at him.

“He was escorting no one. Perhaps he carried messages. Anyway, he had with him one captive girl who might have been your sister. As nearly as I can recall, she must have been about twelve years old. Dark-haired, I think. Ugly. Whether she had any closer resemblance to yourself I can’t remember.”

“True, she was not pretty,” Rolf said eagerly. He shook his head. “Nor was she my blood relative. What happened then?”

“I had other things to think about. I remember Tarlenot, if I am not mistaken, saying something about selling her, in the north. There was a tavernkeeper up there at a caravanserai – ” Chup stopped, caught by a sudden thought. “Why, it comes back, now. On that night I dreamt, and it was most odd. I thought I wakened, while all the men in the encampment, even the sentries, lay sleeping all around me. Tarlenot rose up from his blankets, but I could see his eyes were closed and he was still asleep.”

“What happened then?” Rolf was utterly intent, but none the less alert. And still no closer.

Chup thought he might better have kept quiet about the dream. It must sound like some devious lie or stalling tactic. But now he had begun it.

“I dreamt there came one from outside the firelight, taller than a man and dressed in full dark armor that hid his face and all his body. A great Lord, certainly, but whether of East or West I could not say. The earth seemed to sink down beneath his feet, as stretched cloth would yield to the weight of a walking man. He stood before the sleeping, standing Tarlenot, and stretched out his hand toward – yes, toward where the girl must have been lying.

“And the dark Lord said: ‘What you have there is mine, and you will dispose of it as I wish.’ Those were his words, or very like them. And Tarlenot bowed, like one accepting orders, though his eyes remained closed in sleep.

“Then all became confused, as in dreams it often does, you know? When I awoke it was morning. The sentries were alert, as they must have been all through the night. The girl was still asleep, and smiling. That recalled to me my dream, but then I forgot it again in the press of the day’s business.” The dream had been very vivid, and the way he had forgotten and then remembered it was odd. Quite likely it had some magical importance. But what?

Chup asked: “The girl was not blood relative, you say? Who was she?”

“I call her my sister; I thought of her that way.” Seeing how intently Chup leaned forward, gripping the saddle, Rolf went on. “She was about six years old when she came to us, the year I was eleven. The armies of the East had not yet reached here, but they were in the country to the south, and people fleeing north sometimes passed along our road. We thought Lisa must have come from some such group passing through. My parents and I woke up one spring morning to find her standing naked in our farmyard, crying. She could remember nothing, not her name or how she’d got there. She could hardly talk. But she had been well fed and cared for up till then; my mother marveled that she had not a bruise or scratch.”

“You took her in?” Chup would find out all he could from the young fool. Before he should come close enough…

“Of course. I told you, that was before the East had come upon us; we had food in plenty. We named her Lisa, for my true sister, that had died as a baby.” Rolf scowled, running thin on patience. “Why are you questioning me? Tell me what happened to her.”

Chup shook his head. “I told you, what happened to her finally I do not know. Except for this: when we separated in the morning, Tarlenot spoke no more of going north and selling his captive, but of going east to the Black Mountains.” Weary of talking, Chup reached for the waterbag and got a drink.

After probing Chup with his gaze for a time, Rolf nodded, “I think, if you were making up a lie, you would make one that was more satisfying and believable.” And yet Rolf hesitated. “Come, if this tale just now was a lie, tell me. The water and the knife will still be yours. And freedom, whatever it may be worth to you out here.”

“No lie. I’ve done my part of the bargain, told you all I know.” Chup gripped his left leg with his hands and pulled it free of the stirrup, and then the right. He made them dangle lifelessly. “Come, get me down. Another moment or two, and this animal will fall beneath my weight.”

“Swing yourself off with your arms,” said Rolf. “I’ll hold its head.”

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