Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“Just bring me to my lady. Where is she?”

Shortly they were mounting up again. Jarmer turned away from the largest gate, and chose a path that followed close beneath the wall, round to the south flank of the citadel. There a small gate was open, just wide enough for the troop to enter in a single, weary file. They dismounted in a stableyard, giving their animals into the care of quick-moving, dull-eyed serfs.

Scarcely had Chup got his feet upon the ground when there came hurrying to him a man with the indefinable air of the wizard about him. He gave this impression more powerfully by far than the one who had accompanied the patrol, though the newcomer had no iridescent robes and no familiar on his shoulder. He was slight of build, with a totally bald head that kept tilting from side to side on his lean, corded neck, as if he wished to view from two angles everything he saw.

This man caught Chup’s ragged sleeve, and in a rapid low voice demanded: “You have it with you?”

“That depends on what you mean. Where is the Lady Charmian?”

The man did something like a dance step in his impatience. “The charm, the charm!” he urged, with voice held low. “It’s safe to speak. Trust me! I am working for her.”

“Then you can take me to her. Lead on.”

The man seemed torn between his annoyance and satisfaction at Chup’s caution. “Follow me,” he said at last, and turned and led the way.

A series of gates were opened for them, first by black-garbed soldiers, then by serfs. With each barrier they passed, the aspect of their surroundings grew milder. Now Chup followed the wizard along pleasant paths of flagstones and of gravel, across terraces and gardens bright with autumn flowers and fragrant with their scent. They passed a gardener, a bent-leg cripple with a face like death, pulling himself along the path upon a little cart, his implements before him.

The last barrier they came to was a tall thorny hedge. Chup followed the bald wizard through a gateless opening. They came upon a garden patio, built out from a low stone building, or from one wing of it; Chup could not see how far the house extended. Here was the grass thicker and better cared for than before, and the flowers, between a pair of elegant marble fountains, brighter and more numerous.

By now the sun come round the mountain’s bulk. It made a flare of gold of Charmian’s hair, as she rose from a divan to greet her husband. Her gown was gold, with small fine trimmings of dead black. Her grace of movement was in itself enough for him to know her by.

Her beauty filled his eyes and nearly blinded him. “My lady!” His voice was hoarse and dry. Then he remembered, and regretted, that he stood before her in the rags and filth of half a year of beggary.

“My husband!” she called out, in tones an echo of his own. Mingled with the tinkling of the fountains, it was her voice as he had dreamed of it, through all the lonely nights… but no, he had not dreamed of her. Why not? He frowned.

“My husband. Chup.” The very sunlight was not brighter nor more joyful than her voice, and in her eyes he read what all men want to see. Her arms reached out, ignoring all his filth.

He had taken three steps toward her when his feet were pulled out from under him and a rough gravel path came up to strike him in the face. He heard a shriek of laughter and from the corner of his eye saw a dwarfish figure spring up and flee away from a concealing bush beside the path, trailing howls of glee.

The unthinking speed in his arms had slapped out his hands in time to break his fall and save his chin and nose. Gaping up now at his bride he saw her beauty gone-not taken away, or faded, but shattered in her face like some smashed image in a mirror. It was, as usual, rage that contorted her face so. How well he knew that look. And how could he have forgotten it?

She glared at him as he regained his feet. She screamed out her shrewish filth and hate -how often he had heard it, in the brief days he had known her before their marriage ceremony. He had not been the target, then, of course; she would not then have dared.

Now why was she screaming all this abuse at him? It neither hurt nor angered him. He had no intention of striking her or shouting back. She was his bride, infinitely beautiful and desirable, and he would have her and she must not be hurt. Yes, yes, all that was settled. It was simply that this side of her character was annoying.

She was screeching at him. ” -Filth! Carrion! Did you ever doubt I would repay you triply for it?”

“For what?” he asked deliberately.

A vein of anger stood out in her lineless forehead. For a moment she could not speak. Then, in a choking voice, not unlike a reptile’s caw: “For striking me!” A tiny drop of spittle came far enough to strike his cheek, the touch of it a warm and lovely blessing.

“I struck you?” Why, that was mad, ridiculous. How could she think -but wait. Wait. Ah, yes. He remembered.

He nodded. “You were hysterical when I did that, “he said, absently trying to brush the dust from his rags. “I did it for your good, actually. I only slapped you with my open hand, not very hard. You were hysterical, much as you are now.”

At that she cried out with new volume and alarm. She backed away toward a doorway that led into the building. From a gap between hedges there came running three men in servants’ drab clothes. One of them was quite large. Together they ran to make a wide barrier between him and his lady.

“Take him away,” she ordered the servants in a soft and venomous voice, regaining most of her composure. “We will amuse ourselves with him – later.” She turned quickly to the bald wizard, who was still hovering near. “Hann. You have made sure he has it with him, have you not?”

Hann tilted his head. “I have not yet had that opportunity, my lady.”

“I have it,” Chup interrupted them. “Your lady, wizard? No, she’s mine, and I have come to claim her.” He stepped forward, and saw with some surprise that the three fools in his way stood fast. They saw only his dirt and rags, and perhaps they had seen him fall when he was tripped.

He scorned to draw his knife for such as these. He heeled an ugly nose up with his left hand, and swung his fist into the stretched-up throat; one man down. He grabbed a reaching hand by its extended thumb, and broke bone with one wrenching snap. He had only one opponent left. This third and largest fellow had got behind Chup in the meantime, and got him in a clumsy grip. But now, with his fellows yelping and thrashing about in helplessness, the lout realized he was alone, and froze.

“I am the Lord Chup, knave; let go.” He said it quietly, standing still, and he had the feeling that the man would have done so if he had not feared Charmian more than Chup. Instead the big slave cried out hoarsely, and tried to lift Chup and throw him. They swayed and staggered together for a moment before Chup could shift his hips aside and snap a fist behind him, low enough for best effect.

Now he was free to turn once more to claim his lady. She once more howled for help. The wizard Hann hauled out a short sword from under his cloak -evidently feeling his magic had turned unreliable with the onset of violence -and threw himself between Chup and his bride. But Hann was not the equal of the last swordsman Chup had faced, and Chup was stronger now than then. Hann dropped his good long blade and fell down screaming, when he felt the knife caress his arm.

This time, however, Charmian did not resume her noise-making, nor did she try to flee. Instead she stood with bright eyes smiling past Chup’s shoulder. He heard a foot crunch gravel behind him on the path.

It was Tarlenot who stood there. He had already drawn his sword, at sight of the lawn littered with writhing, groaning men. His eyes lighted unpleasantly in recognition as Chup turned round to face him. Tarlenot was not a tall man, but powerful and long of arm. His short pink tunic showed bare legs as muscular as Chup’s had been in his days of full strength. Around his thick neck was clasped a thin collar of some dark, plain metal, a strangely poor-looking thing for one to wear who was otherwise garbed luxuriously. Tarlenot’s face was haughty now, more so than Chup remembered; the countenance of a pouty child grown big and muscular; his fair hair fell with a slight curl round his ears. He nodded his head lightly in recognition to Chup, and gave him a little smile. But he made no move to sheathe his sword.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred