Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“Lisa!” He was out in the scrub forest again, calling more loudly for his sister. The afternoon was very warm even here in the shade of the trees. Rolf raised his arm to wipe sweat from his face with his sleeve, and saw that in his hand he was carrying the little kitchen knife, which he must have picked up from amid the ruins of the house.

And then a little later, when his mind with a little inward jump moved another notch on its recovery from the craziness of shock, he found himself walking along the narrow rutted road that passed near what had been his home. The world around him looked strangely normal, as if this were nothing but another day. He was trudging in an easterly direction, taking the way that would bring him to a larger highway and ultimately to the Castle brooding on its height above the pass. Where did he think he was going? What was it he meant to do?

Again a little later, the world became thin and gray before his eyes. He felt that he was fainting, and he saw down quickly in the grass beside the road. He did not faint. He did not rest either, though the muscles of his legs were quivering with exhaustion. He saw that his clothes had recently been torn in several places. He had just been running through the woods, calling Lisa’s name. But she was gone, and he was not going to be able to get her back.

Gone. All of them gone.

After a period of sitting, he became aware with a slight start that a man was standing near him in the yellow-gray dust of the road. There were sandaled feet and a pair of buskined ankles, and masculine calves with lean muscle and sparse wiry black hair. At first Rolf could think only that the man must be a soldier, and Rolf wondered if he might get out his knife and strike before the soldier killed him -he had thrust the -kitchen knife awkwardly under the rope that was his belt, with his shirt closed over it for concealment.

But when Rolf raised his eyes he saw that the man was no soldier. He appeared to be unarmed, and looked not at all dangerous.

“Is there -something wrong?” The man’s voice was precise, and gently accented, one of the few voices Rolf had ever heard that spoke in its tones of far places and strange peoples. The speaker’s mild eyes blinked down at Rolf, from a face too woebegone in expression and too ordinary in most of its features for the hawk nose to give it pride.

The man was no peasant. Though his clothes were not the finery of an important person, they were better than Rolf’s. He was dusty with long walking, and he had a pack on his back. His simple knee-length cloak was half open, and from under it one lean, dark-haired arm extended in a rotating, questioning gesture.

“There is something much wrong, hey?”

Finding an answer for that question was an insurmountable problem at the moment. Rolf soon gave up the effort. He gave up on everything.

The next thing he was clearly aware of was the mouth of a water bottle being applied to his own mouth. If his mind had forgotten thirst his body had not, and for a few moments he swallowed ravenously. Then in reaction he nearly vomited. Good clean water choked him and stung his nose, but it stayed down at last. The drink shocked him, revived him, lifted him another notch toward rational function. He found himself standing, leaning on the man. He pulled away and looked at him.

The man was a little taller than Rolf, not quite as dark. His face seemed leaner than his body, and somehow finer, as if he had trained his face to show only a part of a great and unrelenting worry – “ascetic” was not a word or concept that Rolf had at his command.

“Oh, my. Something very much wrong?” The mild eyes blinked rapidly a time or two, and the lean face essayed a tentative smile, as if hoping to be contradicted, to hear that things might prove not so terrible after all. But the smile faded quickly. The stubby-fingered hands recapped the wafer bottle and reslung it under the cloak, then came up to clasp themselves as if beseeching to be allowed to know the worst.

It took Rolf a little time, but he stammered out the essentials of his story. Before the telling was finished, he and the man were walking along together on the road, now going away from the highway and the Castle, heading back in the direction from which Rolf had come. Rolf noticed this distantly, without feeling that it mattered in the least which way he walked. The shadows of the trees were lengthening now, and all the winding road was cool and gray.

“Ah. Oh. Terrible, terrible!” the man kept murmuring as he listened. He had ceased to wring his hands, and walked with them clasped behind his back. Now and then he hoisted and shifted his pack, as if the weight of it was still unfamiliar after all his travels. During the pauses in Rolfs story the man asked his name, and told him that his own name was Mewick. And when Rolf ran out of speech the man Mewick kept talking to him, asking idle-sounding questions about the road and the weather, questions that kept Rolf from withdrawing again into a daze. Also Mewick related how he was walking along the coast of the great sea from north to south, offering for sale the finest collection of magical implements, amulets and charms to be found on the open market anywhere. Mewick smiled sadly as he made this claim, like a man who did not expect to be believed.

“Have you there – ” Rolf’s voice choked, so he was forced to start over, but then the words came out strong. “Have you there in your pack anything that can be used to track men down and kill them?”

On hearing this question the peddler only looked more gloomy than ever, and at first gave no answer. As he walked he kept turning his head to shoot glances of apparent concern at Rolf.

“Killing and more killing,” the peddler said at last, shaking his head in disgust. “No, no, I carry no such things in my pack. No-but today is not your day for being lectured. No, no, how can I talk to you now?”

They came to a branch in the road, where the right-hand fork led to the clearing where Rolfs home had been. Rolf stopped suddenly. “I must go back,” he said with an effort. “I must see to it that my parents are buried.”

Wordlessly, Mewick went with him. Nothing had changed in the clearing except for the lengthening of the shadows. What had to be done did not take the two of them long, digging with shovel and hoe in the soft earth of what had been the garden. When the two graves had been filled and mounded over, Rolf gestured at the pack which Mewick had laid aside, and asked, “Have you anything there that… ? I would put some spell of protection on the graves. I could pay you for it later. Sometime.”

Frowning bitterly, Mewick shook his head. “No. No matter what I said before, I have nothing here that is worth the giving. Except some food,” he added, brightening just slightly. “And that is for the living, not the dead. Could you eat now?”

Rolf could not. He looked around the clearing, for the last time, as he thought. Lisa had not answered to his renewed calling of her name.

Mewick was slowly getting into the harness of his pack again, seemingly hesitant about just what to say or do next. “Then walk with me,” he offered at last. “Tonight I think I know a place to stay. Not many kilometers. A good place to rest.”

The sun would soon be setting. “What place?” Rolf asked, though he did not feel any real concern for where he was going to spend the night.

Mewick stood considering the lay of the land, as if he could see for a distance through the woods. He looked to the south and asked a couple of questions about the roads that skirted the swamps in that direction. “It will be shorter, I think, if we do not go around by road,” he said at last.

Rolf had no will now to debate or even to think. Mewick had helped him. Through Mewick he was maintaining some hold on life and reason, and he would go along with Mewick. Rolf said, “Yes, we can go cross-country if you like, and come out on the road near the swamp.”

True to this prediction, they emerged from the scrub forest to strike the south-going coastal road, just as the sun was redly vanishing behind a low cloudbank on the sea-horizon. From the point where they struck the road it ran almost perfectly straight south for about a kilometer over the level land ahead of them, and then curved inland to the left to avoid the beginning of the swamps.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114

Categories: Saberhagen, Fred