Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Chup, had he been honestly trying, might not have been able to manage getting off without using his legs. Whichever side he lurched toward, one of his limp legs hooked over the saddle, while the other dangled awkwardly in such a position that it was likely to be broken under him if he just let go and fell. Even a man seeking to be left alone in the desert to die would not like to start his ordeal with a broken ankle. The beast grew restive, while Rolf held its head.

At last Rolf muttered impatiently: “I’ll lift you down.” Still holding the bridle with one hand, he stepped to the side of the animal opposite from where Chup was clinging at the moment. He freed Chup’s leg so it would slide easily over the animal’s back. Then, bridle still in hand, he moved back around the loadbeast’s head.

He found Chup standing free.

Rolf’s moment of surprise was time enough for Chup to half-lunge, half-fall, upon his victim. Chup learned in that first moment that his legs were still far from their full strength. They could do little more than hold him up.

But they had served him well enough for a moment, and that moment was enough. Rolf’s hand had moved quickly, but still he had hesitated fractionally between drawing sword and dagger, and by the time his choice had settled on the shorter blade it was too late. Chup’s hand was there to grip Rolf’s wrist and argue for the weapon. Grappling as he fell, Chup dragged the other down upon the sand.

The youth had wiry strength, and two good legs. He writhed and kicked and struggled. But already Lord Chup had the grip he wanted, on Rolf’s dagger arm. Rolf’s tough arm muscles strained and quivered, fighting for his life; the Lord Chup’s brutal power, methodical and patient, wore them down.

The captured arm began to bend. It was near the breaking point before its hand would open and give the dagger up. Chup caught the weapon up, reversed; he did not want to kill Rolf until he had made absolutely sure the charm was still with him. If it was not, Rolf would have to tell him where it was. He clubbed Rolf along the skull with the butt of the knife, and Rolf went limp.

Inside Rolfs jacket, in an inner pocket buttoned shut and holding nothing else, Chup found the charm. No sooner had his fingers touched it than he snatched them back. When he took it, would it work on him as it seemed to have on this young clod? Turn him misty-eyed and doting over the treacherous woman whom he had wed for nothing but political reasons?

Only briefly did he hesitate. If he would be a Lord once more, he had no choice but to take the charm into his possession and carry it to the East.

The loadbeast, decrepit and lethargic as it was, had run off a few strides and was still stirring restlessly. Chup called to it in a soothing voice. Then he muttered the three brief defensive spells that sometimes seemed to work for him -he was a poor magician -and drew the coil of hair out of Rolfs pocket.

It was an intricately woven circlet of startling gold, large enough to fit around a man’s wrist. Chup had no immediate feeling of power in it, but obviously it was no mere trinket; it was not dull or crumpled, though an oaf had kept it in his pocket perhaps for half a year, and had probably given it much secret fondling.

Chup did not doubt for a moment that it was Charmian’s hair. It brought her beauty sharply to his mind, and he stood up, swaying on his reborn legs, gazing at the charm. Aye, his unclaimed bride was beautiful. Whatever else was said of her, no one argued that. Charmian’s was the beauty, made real, that lonely men imagined in their daydreams. He recalled now the ceremonies of their wedding. There had followed half a year of death, for him. But now he was a man again…

Eventually he took note of Rolfs stirrings at his feet, and tucked the charm into a pocket in his own rags, and bent to put an end to his victim. On Chup’s still-unsteady legs it was a slow bending. Before he could complete it, one of his victim’s feet was hooked behind his right ankle, and the other came pushing neatly at the front of Chup’s right knee. The warrior-lord had no more chance of remaining upright than a chopped-through tree.

When he landed on his back he lay still briefly, raging at his own foolishness while he pretended to be stunned. Pretending did no good, for the peasant was not fool enough to jump on him. Instead, Rolf was crawling and scrambling away, dazed-looking, but also plainly full of life. Chup struggled erect, and tried to hurry in pursuit. But instead of lunging and pouncing he could only stumble on his traitorous legs and fall again.

Quickly he was up once more, holding his captured dagger. But Rolf too was now on his feet, sword drawn and pointed more or less steadily at Chup’s midsection.

Something he had almost forgotten began to grow in Chup: his old happiness of combat. “At least,” he observed, “you have learned how to hold a blade since last we fought.”

Rolf was not minded to talk or even listen. His face showed how he, too, raged at himself for carelessness. He lunged forward, thrusting. To Chup, his own response seemed horribly slow and rusty; but still his hand had not forgotten what to do. It came up of itself, bringing the knife in an economical curve to meet the sword. The long steel sang, shooting two centimeters wide of Chup’s ribs. Then quickly the sword slid back, to make a looping swing and cut. Chup saw it was coming downward toward his legs. They had no nimbleness to save themselves. He let himself drop forward, reaching down with his short blade to parry the stroke as best he could. He caught the sword blade in the angle between hilt and blade of his dagger, caught it and tried to pin it to the ground. But Rolf wrenched the sword away again. Rolf feinted twice before he struck again, but there was not much skill in his pretense, so Chup had time to get back on his feet, parrying the real cut even as he rose. ‘

Chup saw as they circled that the loadbeast was moving steadily away. No help for that. His eyes were locked on Rolf’s, and both of them were breathing harshly. So it went on for a little time, with nothing said. Rolf would advance and strike, or sometimes only feint. Chup parried, and faked attacking in his turn. With his short blade he could not very well attack a sword, held by a determined foe. If Chup had had his strong legs he could have tried and might have won -skipping back when the sword cut at him, driving forward then at the precisely proper instant for striking. Without perfectly dependable legs it would be suicide.

A first-rate swordsman in Rolf’s place would have driven in on Chup, trying to stay just at the distance where the sword could strike but the dagger could not, pounding one stroke upon another until at last the shorter blade must miss a parry. Though Rolf was dangerous with a sword, he was far from masterly. Chup watched and judged him critically. Rolf was evidently determined he was not going to be tricked again into rushing to too close quarters with the Lord Chup. So he stood just a fraction of a meter too far away before he struck; and he failed to press his attacks. Against his efforts the knife in Chup’s hand could, with a minimum of luck, stand like a wall of armor.

At last Rolf drew back a further step, and dropped his sword point slightly. Perhaps he hoped to provoke Chup into something rash.

But Chup only dropped his own arms to his sides and stood there resting, panting honestly. His legs were stronger than when the fight had started, as if exercise were an aid to the demon’s magic. But in the joy of fighting, with health and strength and freedom come again, he had no great wish to kill.

He said: “Youngster, come with me to the East. Follow and serve me, and I will make you a warrior. Yes, and a leader of warriors. You may never be a great one with the sword, but you have the guts, and if you live long enough you may absorb a little knowledge.”

The murderous determination frozen in the young face did not thaw for an instant. Instead, Rolf closed again, and struck, once, twice, three times, with greater violence than usual. The blades rang, rang, rang. Ah, Chup thought, it was too bad, a good man wasted as an enemy. Chup would have to kill him.

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