Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“Tarlenot,” said Charmian’s ethereal and tender whisper. “Make this one a gardener for us.”

Chup bent and picked up the sword dropped by the wizard Hann, who still sat moaning, bleeding lightly, on the flagstones. The sword seemed stout enough, though its twisted fancy hilt was not much to Chup’s liking. It did feel better than it looked.

“That is no gardener’s tool,” Tarlenot observed. “And here we do not need another lord.”

Charmian giggled quietly. “Tarlenot, his legs have grown too straight. Bend his knees for him. We will get him a little cart, and he will tend our flowers.”

Chup sighed faintly and moved a step farther from his lady. It was hard, when the woman you were devoted to might stick a knife between your ribs. She was his bride, and the only woman he wanted, but there would be no trusting her.

“Tarlenot,” he called, waiting while the other made up his mind. “One questioned me about you. Only a few days ago.”

“Oh? In what connection?” The mind had been made up. “First, though, wouldyou rather I only cut your tendons, or took your legs clean off? They say that useless limbs are worse than none at all. You should know, is it so?”

“He was one who meant to do things to you that you would not like.” Chup stepped slowly and easily forward. “Now he will never have his chance.” His legs were working very well, but he could have wished to give them their first real test in practice. He raised his blade as he advanced, and Tarlenot’s sword came up in a motion quite gentle and controlled, and with a careful metal touch the duel was joined.

With the first preliminary touches and feints Chup knew that he had met a formidable enemy, and one cautious enough not to be deceived by Chup’s scarecrow appearance into taking the scarecrow lightly. And when Chup had to make a really quick hard parry for the first time, he realized there was no great endurance left in his own body, long underfed, but newly healed, and just finished with a long ride.

Tarlenot was fresh and vigorous. Had it not been for the residual effect of the healing elixir -fading now, though the good work it had done remained-Chup might have been quickly beaten. His muscles were left aching and quivering by two or three exchanges at full power and speed.

They circled slowly on the gravel path and flagstones, and felt for cautious footing amid the flowers between the tinkling fountains. Chup as he turned saw Charmian pass within his range of vision; he saw her with a gesture stay her other attendants, now running up, from any interference. He saw how bright her eyes were, and the expectant parting of her perfect lips. She would take the winner, but only to use him and discard him when it was to her advantage or merely suited her whim. Chup knew that, if Tarlenot perhaps did not. But she was Chup’s…

And then in front of her face came Tarlenot’s. “Let me see,” saidTarlenot, “if I can hit the old wound on your spine, within a finger’s breadth. How was it done? Like this?” And he attacked.

Chup parried desperately, and riposted; his weary arm thrust wide. “Not like that, no,” he said. “But with some skill.” Demons and blood, but he was tired.

And Tarlenot knew it. He was now carefully making sure that Chup’s tremulous near-exhaustion was no sham. Now that Tarlenot had measured Chup’s reach and something of his style, he began to push the fight harder. Harder, till he himself began to puff.

Now Chup gave ground steadily as they circled. Sheer desperation kept him going, now. He might back into a corner… he saw before him the gardener on his cart, with lifeless eyes…

No, he was the Lord Chup, and he would win or die. And just then Tarlenot’s sword came flicking in a little faster than before. Chup saw the danger but his weary, tardy arm could not make the parry quite in time, and he felt the hot bite of the wound along his side.

With that hurt there came before Chup all the blackness of the past half year, all of it seemingly alive before him in the person of his foe. The hurt was rage, the rage was fuel, the only hope and power he had left. He let his fury drive him forward, striking fast and hard, stroke after stroke -and then he staggered, halting. He feigned a final exhaustion before his ultimate reserve of energy was quite gone. Tarlenot, with triumph too early on his face, came thrusting in as Chup had thought he would. Chup parried that thrust and spent his final strength in one last blow, straight overhand, cleaving downward at the angle of his enemy’s shoulder and neck.

The sword touched glancingly the blackish metal collar, and then bit down through garments, flesh, and bone. He saw Tarlenot’s eyes bulge out, and the red fountain leaping from the wound. Clear down to the breastbone Chup’s sword smote, and Tarlenot was driven to his knees, and then fell backward dead, his arms flung wide.

Chup found the strength to set his foot upon the ruined tunic that had once been silken pink, and wrench to get his swordblade free. He staggered back, then and got his back against a wall. He leaned there choking while the world grew gray and dim before him with the throbbing of his heart, as if it were his own blood puddling up the walk.

But he was not bleeding much. His searching fingers told him that the cut along his side had parted little more than skin.

Charmian… but she was gone. That was all right. Let her play any game she wanted, but he was going to have her now. As soon as he had rested for a bit. A sound made him turn. A small mob of lackeys were goggling timidly at him from a distance. The odd sound did not emanate from them. From where, then?

Straight up. A flying reptile had emerged from one of the windowlike openings that marked the mountain’s dead black upper slope. It was winging down toward where Chup stood-but not on reptile’s wings, he realized. Its rounded, headless body, dead and rigid, considerably bulkier than a man, hung beneath a speed-blur such as the wings of hummingbirds drew in the air. But this blur was a ,thin, horizontal disc, a spinning, not a vibration up and down. The noise it made, growing now into a whining roar, was like no sound of life that Chup had ever heard. The thing came rushing, almost falling, down toward the garden.

Chup pushed himself away from the wall. He had seen something of the magic that the Old World had called technology (though never a machine that flew), and knew the hopelessness of fighting with a sword against machines. He moved toward the doorway beside Charmian’s empty divan; the flying thing looked too big to get in there. But before Chup reached the door, the wizard Hann was coming out to meet him, not as a foe but welcoming, with a flushed maidservant skipping beside him awkwardly, trying to finish tying a bandage on Hann’s arm.

“The Lady Charmian sends you greetings…” Then Hann noticed the flying machine’s approach, and Chup’s attention to it. “No, no, Lord Chup, do not concern yourself; it is not a fighting device. Put up your sword. Come in! The Lady Charmian greets you, as I said, and expresses her apologies for all of this unfortunate… she will soon receive you. You have the golden charm with you, I trust? She begs you, let her maidens tend you now. When you are rested and refreshed…”

Chup was not really listening as he went on with Hann inside the door. Anyway the machine was not coming to Chup. Instead it descended close beside the corpse of Tarlenot. Just above the ground, the flyer hovered, while the shining whirl of speed on top roared down a blast of air that pressed down bushes, kicked up dust, and rippled grass. Along the headless metal body there stood symbols, meaningless to Chup:


In another moment the rounded metal body opened six secret holes, three on a side, and from them came extending hidden legs, sliding jointed things like insects’ feelers grown monstrously large. These reached for Tarlenot and probed him, one delicate leg-tip clinging to the dull metal collar beside the great leaking leer of his wound. Then suddenly and effortlessly the flying thing gathered up Tarlenot’s dead weight with its slender legs, drew it up and swallowed it into a coffin-sized cavity that gaped suddenly in the metal belly and as suddenly closed again. The six legs retracted and the Old World thing shot upward once again, roaring a louder noise and blasting the garden with a greater rush of air. It raced up toward the place whence it had come. Turned insect-sized again, it vanished into one of the windows where, according to Jarmer, the Beast-Lord Draffut dwelt.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred