Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The more he thought, the likelier it appeared. This whole scheme could have been accomplished in a different way. Hann could have given the two deformed guards dried fruit, and magic words. They could have taken the circlet in and thrown it on the pile as easily as Chup. Except in that case Chup would have been left above ground, live and active, and with his own will back again.

Holding his breath, he listened for any sound above. They must be standing silent and listening too. Suppose he called up for the ladder and they lowered it. When he, unarmed, climbed to the top, the two Guardsmen would be there, one on each side, with weapons drawn… or suppose they did not lower the ladder, but laughed at him. They could have some means to grapple his body and hoist it up, after the centipede had struck him. Either way, once he was dead, put him down a crevice somewhere. He would vanish, or seem to be the victim of an accident or some chance quarrel or casual assassination -only there would be nothing to connect him with the treasure vault.

Behind Chup now, the sounds of the centipede grew louder. Looking back, it saw it was now managing to drag itself along the floor. It moved in his direction.

And close above him now he heard the faint sound of a sandal-scrape, and the intake of a nervous breath. “Where is he?” came a Guard’s low whisper. “If the demons took him after all, they’re certain to report him. Then we’re through!”

Chup’s eyes had now adapted well enough for him to see the beast in some detail. Thin as an arm its body was, though longer than a man, about as long as the many-weaponed tail that flicked and twitched behind it. A man with good arms might easily break the beast’s thin neck, it seemed. Except that as soon as he tried to get a grip that tail would come snapping like a whip in the gloom, impossible to block or dodge… the clustered poison-spines grew longer than fingers on that tail. How could a man fight such a thing barehanded?

Why, thus, and so. And he would have a fighting chance, if it was dazed and slow. The cold calculation of tactics led Chup on into the outline of a larger plan. He trusted what his instinct told him, in a fight; the reasons came clear later, if he took the time to think them out.

The animal was trying now to stand, was on the verge of success. Chup drew a deep breath and moved into action. He scraped his sandals on the paving, making hurried footsteps, and in a low clear voice he called out: “Let down the ladder.”

From up above, the laughter came.

The centipede was still sliding toward Chup, with a whispery scraping of its feet and body on the stones. Moving more quietly than the dazed beast, Chup circled to its rear and closed in. He grabbed in the neardarkness with his unprotected hand for the tail, and caught it, just under the cluster of poison-spines at the tip. He set his foot against what might be called the creature’s rump and shoved it down and pinned it when it would have tried to rise. Holding the tail straight was easy enough, but the multitude of slender legs had strength in numbers, resilient power surprising for their size. He was in for a struggle as soon as the drug had worn off completely, the more so as he must not kill this beast. The fighter’s intuition on which he relied had grapsed that point at once, though he had not thought it through with conscious ‘logic: he must keep for himself the option of making Charmian’s plan succeed or fail. To leave this animal dead would mean alerting Som and the plot’s eventual discovery.

Up above, the Guardsmen’s low voices were cheering on the beast.

“Put down the ladder, quick, by all the demons!” Chup cried out. Out of sight of those above, he was now sitting on the body of the beast to hold it down. His right hand was still vising the tail, his left hand feeling for the neck.

“Fight it out, oh great Lord Chup!” called down a voice. “What’s wrong, did you forget your sword?”

He answered with a wordless cry of rage, as he shifted his grip upon the creature just slightly and stood up, lifting it across his shoulders. The weight was quite surprising for the size, it must be half as heavy as a man.

“That sounded like it did for him.”

“It must have. Wait a moment, though.”

The hundred legs remained in agitation, pounding softly, coldly, at Chup’s head. He moved with his hideous burden, carefully keeping out of direct sight of the men above, stepping soundlessly.

One of the hidden voices said: “Toss down a bait. We’ve waited long enough. It got him, or he’d still be running.”

Said the other, doubtfully: “He might have gone back down to the vault.”

“Dimwit! The words won’t work twice in one night, remember? Hann told us that. No man’ll run to a wakeful demon, not even if a hundred-legger’s chasing him. Throw a bait, we don’t know when an inspector’s going to come.”

“All right, all right. Where’s the beast? I’ll toss one before his nose.”

Chup twisted his burden off his shoulder and lowered it carefully in straining arms, just enough to let the little feet make scratching sounds upon the floor.

“There, there, hear it?” Chup heard the tiny spat of Hann’s dried fruit, landing a meter or so before him. He waited, counting slowly to ten, his captive’s body prisoned now under his left arm, its deadly tail still clamped safely by his tireless sword hand. Then he pressed the hundred legs down on the pavement once again, and this time let the writhing sides make contact too, to make the sounds of staggering and collapse.

“It took the bait. Go down.”

“You go down, if you’re in such a hurry. Wait till it falls, I say.”

Chup lifted the animal again, and moved silently to a new position.

“It’s quiet now. Go down and haul out the mighty Lord Chup.”

“We had it settled, you were going down!”

“You’re the stronger, as you always brag. So now be quick about it.”

A snarl of fear and anger.

“Quick! What if an inspector conies?”

It was the dwarf who eventually prevailed; the tall scarred man came down the ladder, slowly and hesitantly, frowning into the shadows where he thought Chup and the beast must both be lying. He had his sword drawn, and he spun round quickly when he heard Chup’s soft step behind him. Then he screamed and jumped away and fell when he saw what weapon Chup was brandishing.

Without hesitation Chup turned and charged up the ladder, the writhing beast held above him and in front of him. He saw the dwarf’s face, peering down incredulously, then tumbling backward out of sight in terror.

The dwarf was far too late in trying to draw his stubby sword. Chup by that time had reached the ladder’s top, pitched the animal back down the hole, and was reaching for the little man. The dwarf’s thick sword arm, caught, was twisted till the weapon clattered to the floor, then he himself was flung away across the room.

“Hold back!” Chup barked out, with his back against the door. “I mean no killing here, no val-kyries buzzing down the tunnel to haul you out and bring investigators. Now hold back!”

The disarmed dwarf was sitting, scowling, where he had been tossed, and gave no impression of any eagerness to attack. Nor did the tall, scarred man, who, having beaten the maltreated centipede to the ladder on one lap or another of what must have been a lively race, now halted at the ladder’s top. The tall one was armed, but so now was Chup, who had scooped up the dwarf’s sword; and what Chup had just accomplished without a blade must have augmented his reputation considerably in the present company.

The men held back. Chup nodded, and reached behind him with one hand to slide back the massive bolts that sealed the door. “The scheme you were enlisted forgoes forward, and if you play your parts I will see to it that you are rewarded.” As you deserve, he thought. He went on speaking, with his field commander’s voice: “The plan goes on, but now I am in charge, and not those who first bribed you and instructed you. Remember that. Raise that ladder.”

The tall man hesitated briefly, then jumped to obey, sheathing first his sword. The dwarf was snuffling now like some schoolboy caught in an escapade.

Chup demanded: “What were you to do next? What signal were you to give her, that I am dead?”

The tall one said: “Your…your body, lord. To be left where it would be found; as if some feral centipede had… there are some in these caverns. To make your death look accidental.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred