Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

One of the officers shook his head, and raised one finger. It ended in a tiny abnormal loop of flesh, instead of a fingernail. “The healing’s not that safe or certain. Things sometimes go wrong, up in Lord Draffut’s house. A man who’s badly mangled going in may well come out too crooked to walk straight.

And those who’ve been too long lifeless when the valkyries pick ’em up may never again be smarter than little animals.”

The other officer nodded his scarred head. “Still,” he said, “I think none of us are likely to turn in our collars.”

“See much fighting here?” Chup asked.

“Not since we came here, and Draffut handed out his collars; he was here first, you know, before the East or West… We do grow somewhat stale, those of us who stay inside these mountains. Nothing but a peasant uprising from time to time. But we practice. We’ll handle this Thomas if he comes.”

Chup was invited to visit the officers’ club on a lower level of the citadel, where wine and gambling and fresh peasant girls were available. He got up and strolled with the two men to sample the wine; as for the dice and the women, he had no money at the moment, and could not imagine himself wanting any woman but one.

Walking the main, buried corridors of the citadel, Chup took note of the fighting men he saw. He supposed the garrison might number a thousand if all were mobilized; but the five hundred elite Guardsmen should be easily able to hold the natural defenses of the place against Thomas’s four thousand or so. A few of the Guardsmen were grotesquely misshapen with old scars, of wounds no man could ordinarily survive, though they were active still; this confirmed what the officer had said about the uncertainty of being healed.

Chup had other things to watch for on his walk to the officers’ club and back again, through rooms and passages carved from the mountain’s rock. In one large chamber, decorated with some ancient artisan’s frieze of unknown men and creatures, he spotted without paying it any obvious attention the entrance to the passage that Charmian had told him to watch for. It was an unmarked tunnel leading downward and yet farther into the mountain. It was this way that, by many turns and branches she had described, would lead him to Som’s own treasure hoard.

Again and again during the next two days she repeated her instructions to him; by then he had ceased to doubt her word on anything at all. And then she awoke him in the night, to tell him that the time had come, the three requirements had fallen together. Tomorrow he must try to reach the treasure vault of Som.

He strode into the high, frieze-corniced room with the air of a man upon some important errand, as indeed he was. The room was an intersection of two corridors, and held people passing continually to and fro. No one paid attention as Chup turned aside into the downward way that led toward the treasure; it led to other things as well, and was not guarded here.

Chup walked unarmed with any blade or club; he must not kill today, must leave no traces of his passage. For weapons, he carried Charmian’s knowledge of Som’s secrets, gathered he knew not how, but trust her to manage that, in a world of men; and his own boldness, and speed of mind and body; and three words of magic; and a pocketful of dried fruit, innocent to the eye and taste. Hann had demonstrated that a human might eat of it without effect.

A few people passed Chup, coming toward him through the tunnel he descended. Then the way branched, once and again, and now there were no other walkers. The branch that Chup had been taught to follow was a narrow way, and it went on without another intersection for some distance. Now and then it broke out of its walls into a large cave, where it formed a suspended walkway across chasms whose depths were lost in darkness. Sunlight filtered down into the big caves through hidden openings somewhere high above. Along the buried parts of the way, a few cheap lampstands cast some illumination. There were no signs, nor any evidence that any goal of much importance lay in this direction.

So far, all was as Charmian had foretold. And now, here, just as she had said, the path bridged a wider crevasse than usual, and then branched once more. The right way, she had told him, led up into the viceroy’s private quarters. The left side, narrower, was the one that Chup must take.

Now at last there were posted warning signs. Chup had no doubt of what they meant, though he did not stop to try to puzzle out the letters. He also ignored another, blunter, warning: a bundle of mummied hands that were no doubt supposed to be those of would-be trespassers hung like a cluster of dried vegetables above the way. He moved his head slightly as he walked beneath, not wanting the dead fingers to brush his hair. His pulse went quicker. If he were stopped and questioned now, it would be hard to say convincingly that he had seen no warning.

A final abrupt turn, and Chup’s path came to an end against a massive, unmarked door. This too he found as Charmian had described it: so strongly built that a ram would be needed to break it down. Having no sword hilt to rap out a signal with, Chup put his knuckles to the job. The door resounded no more than would a massive tree stump, but someone must have been listening for the little noise, for it was answered quickly. A dim face peeked out at Chup through a small grill. A sliding of bars and rattle of chains, and the great door moved inward just enough for him to enter.

He stepped into a barren, rock-walled chamber about ten meters square. The two men in Guardsmen’s collars standing watch had been given no chairs or other furniture to lure them into relaxation. Directly across from the door where Chup had entered, a ladder five or six meters long stood leaning against the wall; beside the ladder was the room’s only visible aperture besides the door, a narrow hole that led down into darkness. Thick candles in wall sconces lit the guardroom adequately.

One of the men who greeted Chup was hardly more than half a man in size, his legs being grotesquely short. The other guard was of ordinary stature, and sound of limb, but his face was the strangest Chup had ever seen on living man, a wall of scars from which one live eye gleamed like something trapped. According to Charmian, these men had been enlisted in her cause by promises of better healing when she came to power. The two of them closed up and chained and barred the great door tight as soon as Chup was through it; and then they looked at Chup expectantly, but saying nothing.

He had wasted no time either, but had crossed the chamber to look down into the hole. He could see nothing in the darkness there. “Where’s the beast?” he asked. “I mean, in which part of its room?”

The scarred man made a nervous sound. “Hard to say. You’ve got some means of putting it to sleep?”

“Of course. But I’d like to know just where to toss the bait.”

They came and stoodbeside him at the hole, peering down and listening, muttering to each other, trying to locate the beast. They were nervous for his welfare. If his attempt miscarried down below, their complicity in it would be discovered when Chup – alive or dead -was found. It seemed a long time before the dwarfed man raised a hand for Chup’s attention, and pointed to a quarter of the room below. Bending over the pit, straining his ears, Chup thought he could barely hear a dry patter that must be made by the beast’s multitude of feet.

“There, there, yes,” the scarred man whispered. “It’ll be behind you as you go down the ladder.”

They got ready for him the long ladder -Chup saw now that it was really an extremely slim and elegant stair, complete with handrail, fit for Som to use when he went down to count his gold -and now they slid the ladder down.

Chup went down facing the ladder, about one third of its length, before he tossed his first piece of dried fruit. He heard the hundred feet shiver before he saw the rail-thin, cat-quick body; he could not tell for sure whether the bait had been taken. Hann had said that two pieces swallowed should afford Chup time enough to complete his mission. He let his eyes become somewhat more accustomed to the gloom before he tossed a second bait, and he saw this one snapped up by the first pair of delicate legs, flicked up into the tiny, harmless mouth. A moment only passed before the beast shivered, twitched extravagantly, and began to curl its body. Its hundred legs in disarray, it slid down springily to the floor, showing Chup as it bent the hundred branching slivers of its whiplike tail.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred