If he could. The desert this near the castle must be patrolled. Should a squad of Western cavalry appear, that would be all for the Lord Chup and his with Jarmer: “Yes, I have it, and it is not your job to ask for proofs of anything, but to escort me. Now the sooneryou provide me with a mount, the sooner we will be where all of us want to go.”
There was a murmuring of voices. Chup vanished from Rolf’s view, to reappear a moment later, mounted. “Well, captain, are there any more problems I must solve before we can be off? A Western army lies within that fortress, and if they’ve eyes they’ve seen your dust by now.”
But still the captain tarried, exchanging glances with his wizard. Then he spoke to Chup once more, in the tones of one who knew not whether to be angry or obsequious. “Had you no companion on your way out here from that castle? My wise man here says his crystal indicates – ”
“No companion that I mean to tarry for. That ancient loadbeast, mirages, and a skulking predator or two.” Unhurriedly, but ending all delay, Chup turned his new mount to the east and dug his heels in.
The captain shrugged, then motioned with his arm. The wizard put away his jiggling piece of light. The sound of hooves rose loudly for a moment, then rapidly declined, with the settling of the light dust they had raised.
Almost unbelieving, Rolf watched and listened to them go. When the last sound had faded he pulled himself out of the sand and looked. The riders’ plume of dust was already distant in the east from which the night was soon to come. Turning back to face the castle, he saw that some sentinel had -too late-given the alarm. A heavy stream of beasts and men, a mounted reconnaissance-in-force, flowed from the main gate toward the desert.
Rolf stood there numbly waiting for them. He had been given back hope for his sister’s life, but robbed of something whose importance he had not understood until it was taken from him… though in truth his feelings were more relief than loss, as if an aching tooth had been pulled. His hand returned again and again to the empty pocket. His head ached from the robber’s blow.
Ask help of the tall broken man. Why had Gray’s powers told him that?
On the first night of the long flight into the east there had been only brief pauses to rest. During the following day their toiling across the enormous waste of land seemed to bring the Black Mountains no closer. Jarmer during daylight slowed down the pace somewhat, pausing for long rests with posted sentinels. Chup at each stop slept deeply, lying with his golden treasure beneath his body, where none could reach it without waking him. When he awoke he ate and drank voraciously, till those of the black-clad soldiers who had been ordered to share provisions with him grumbled -not too loudly. His legs grew stronger steadily. They were not yet what legs should be, to serve the Lord Chup properly, but he could stand and move on them without expecting to fall down.
The second morning of the journey, the sun was very high before it came in sight; the Black Mountains of the East were tall before them now, casting their mighty shadows many kilometers out upon the desert. Clouds draped their distant summits. Seen from this near, they were no longer black, nor particularly forbidding. What had given them the hue of midnight from a distance, Chup saw now to be the myriad evergreen trees that clothed the middle slopes like blue-green twisted moss.
The troop now traveled upon a long, slow rise of land by which the desert approached the cliffs. The chain of peaks ran far on either flank to north and south, and curved ambiguously from sight in both directions, so Chup was hard put to guess how far the range might stretch.
Straight ahead was one of the higher-looking peaks, sheer cliffs rising to its waist. Now from somewhere on the tableland above the cliffs it disgorged a dozen or so flying reptiles. Down to inspect the mounted troop they flew, on laboring slow wings; the air here must be high and thin for them, and the season of their hibernation was approaching.
Looking more closely at the cliffs as he rode ahead, Chup saw that they were not after all a perfect barrier. To them and into them a road went climbing, switchback after switchback. Toward that road and half-hidden pass Jarmer was leading his men. And indeed the frayed-out start -or ending-of that climbing road seemed to be appearing now, beneath the riding-beasts’ hurrying hooves.
Chup was observing all these matters with alert eyes and mind, but with only half his thought. A good part of his attention was focused inward, upon a vision that had grown in his mind’s eye through the two long nights and single day upon the desert.
Charmian. The weight of the knot of his wife’s hair, swinging in his pocket as the wind and motion of the ride swung his light and ragged garments, seemed to strike like molten gold against his ribs. He remembered everything about her, and there was not a thing that made her less desirable. He was the Lord Chup again, and she was his.
The gradually steepening slope slowed down the tired riding-beasts. The road they traveled, empty of all other traffic, veered abruptly away from the cliffs, then toward them again, on the first winding of the steep part of its ascent. The cliff tops must be a kilometer above their heads.
Chup drank again from the borrowed waterskin he had slung before his saddle. His thirst was mar-velous; the water must be going, he thought, to fill out his recovering legs. Their muscles still seemed to be thickening by the hour, though the speed of recovery was not what it had been at first. He stood up in his stirrups now, and squeezed the barrel of the beast beneath him with his knees. The skin on his legs ached and itched, stretching to hold the new live flesh.
On the next switchback the road climbed past a slender, ancient watchtower, unmanned on this road where scouting reptiles perched and the defenders above held such advantage of position. In Chup’s mind the slender tower was an evoking symbol of the slenderness of his bride. Again, with another turning of the road, the riders passed shabby, dull-eyed serfs at labor in a terraced hillside field. Among them were a few girls and women young enough to look young though they labored for the East; but Chup’s eyes passed quickly over them, only searching for one who was not there, who could not be.
Oh, he knew what she was like. He remembered everything, not just the incredible beauty. But what she was like no longer seemed to matter.
It was a long and arduous climb, up through the narrow pass. As soon as they had reached the top, men dismounted wearily, and animals slumped to their knees to rest. They faced a nearly horizontal tableland, rugged and cracked by many crevices. Across this wound the road they had been following, and at its other side, two or three hundred meters distant, sprawled the low-walled citadel of Som the Dead. Several gates stood open in the outer rampart of gray stone. It did not look particularly formidable as a defense. There was no need for it to be; a few earthworks, now unmanned, stood right at the head of the pass where Chup and his escort had stopped. It needed no shrewd military eye, looking back and down from here, to see that a few men here could stop an army.
Beyond the citadel, the mountain went on up, to lose its head at last within a clinging scarf of cloud.
This mountain, unlike most of those surrounding, was but little forested. Above the citadel, the rock itself grew black. The more Chup looked up at that slope, the better he perceived how odd it was. On that dark, dead surface-was it perhaps metal, instead of rock?-there were a few tiny, even blacker spots, that might be windows or the entrances of caves. No paths or steps led to them. They might be reptile nests, but why so high above the citadel, already at an altitude where the leatherwings had hard work to fly?
Jarmer was standing beside him now, looking forward as if half-expecting some signal from the citadel. Chup turned to him and asked: “I suppose that Som the Dead dwells there above the fort, where all the signs of life are gone?”
Jarmer looked at him oddly for a moment, then laughed. “By the demons! No. Not Som, nor demons either. Quite the opposite. That’s where the Beast-Lord Draffut dwells -you may meet him one day, if you’re lucky.” Then worry replaced amusement. “I hope you’re what you claim to be, and what you bring is genuine. You seem quite ignorant…”