Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The woods having been left behind, there were open fields stretching on either side of the road, all unplowed and untended. In two places Rolf saw houses standing deserted and half-ruined in their abandoned gardens. He kept walking on beside Mewick, feeling himself beyond tiredness, feeling floating and unreal. He could generate no surprise when Mewick stopped in the road and turned to him, slipping the pack from his own back and holding it out to Rolf.

“Here, you carry for a little while, hey? Not heavy. You be an apprentice magic-salesman. Just for now, hey?”

“All right.” Indifferently he took the pack and slipped it on. Geegaws and trash, his father had said, speaking of the things that the smooth-talking magic vendors peddled from farm to farm.

“What is this, hey?” Mewick asked sharply. He had spotted the outline of the handle of the little kitchen knife, made visible now by the pack straps tautening the shirt around Rolf’s waist. Before Rolf could make the effort of answering, Mewick had pulled the knife out, exclaimed in disgust, and pitched it far away into the tall roadside weeds. “No good, no! Very much against the law here in the Broken Country, to carry a weapon concealed.”

“The Castle law.” The words came in a dead voice through a closed jaw.

“Yes. If Castle soldiers see you have a knife -ha!” Apparently anxious to defend his action in throwing away Rolfs property, Mewick seemed to be making an effort to scowl fiercely. But he was not very good at it.

Rolf stood with shoulders slumped, staring blankly ahead of him. “It doesn’t matter. What could I do with a little knife? Maybe kill one. I have to find a way to kill many of them. Many.”

“Killing!” Mewick made a disgusted sound. He motioned with his head and they walked on. It was the last of day, just before the beginning of dusk.

Mewick mumbled in his throat, as if rehearsing arguments. Like a man forgetful, lost in thought, he lengthened his strides until he was a couple of paces ahead of Rolf.

Rolf heard the trotting hooves at a distance on the road behind him and turned, one hand feeling at his waist for the knife that was no longer there. Three soldiers were approaching at leisurely mounted speed, short black lances pointed up at the deepening clearness of the sky. Rolf’s hands moved indecisively to the pack straps; in another moment he might have shucked them from his shoulders and darted from the road in search of cover. But Mewick’s hand had taken a solid grip on the back of Rolf’s shirt, a grip that held until Rolf relaxed. The barren fields bordering the road here afforded next to no cover anyway, which no doubt explained why just three soldiers came trotting the road so boldly on the verge of twilight.

The troopers all wore uniforms of some black cloth and bronze helmets, and had small round shields of bronze hanging loosely on their saddles. One of them was half-armored as well, wearing greaves and a cuirass of a color that dully approximated that of his helm. He rode the largest steed and was probably, Rolf thought, a sergeant. These days the Castle-men rarely appeared on duty wearing any insignia of rank.

“Where to, peddler?” the sergeant demanded in a grating voice; he reined in his animal as he caught up with Mewick and Rolf. He was a stocky man whose movements were slow and heavy as he got down from the saddle-he seemed to be dismounting only because of a wish to rest and stretch. The two troopers with him sat their mounts one on each side of the road, looking relaxed but calmly alert, their eyes more on the tufts of tall grass around them and the marsh ahead than on the two unarmed walkers they had overtaken. Rolf understood after a moment that the soldiers must be taking him for Mewick’s servant or bound boy, since he had been walking two paces behind, carrying the load, and he was poorly dressed.

But that thought and others were only on the surface of Rolf’s mind, passing quickly and without reflection. All he could really think of now was that these soldiers might be the ones. These very three.

Mewick had begun to speak at once, bowing before the dismounted sergeant, explaining how he was hiking on his humble but important business through the Broken Lands from north to south, being welcomed by the valiant soldiers everywhere, because they knew he had most potent charms and amulets for sale, at prices most exceedingly reasonable, sir.

The sergeant had planted himself standing in the middle of the road, and was now rotating his head as if to ease the muscles of his neck. “Take a look in that pack,” he ordered, speaking over his shoulder.

One of the troopers swung down from his saddle and approached Rolf, while the other remained mounted, continuing to scan the countryside. The two dismounted had left their lances in boots fixed to their saddles, but each wore a short sword as well.

The soldier who came to Rolf was young himself, he could have had a little sister of his own somewhere in the East. He did not see Rolf at all except as an object, a burden-carrier upon which a pack was hung. Rolf moved his shoulders to let the pack slide free and the soldier took it from him. At some time when the men of the Broken Lands still worked in the ways of peace, someone had filled and strengthened the road at this low place; under his bare feet Rolf could feel fist-sized rocks amid the sand and clay.

The sergeant was standing leaning his dull gaze on Mewick as if trying to bore through him with it; the soldier took the pack there and dumped it on the ground between then, a cascade of gimcrackery on the damp earth. There fell out rings.and bracelets and necklaces, tumbling and bouncing with love-charms of anonymous plaited hair, with amulets of carven wood and bone. Most of the objects were scribbled or shallowly inscribed with unreadable markings, meaningless signs meant to impress the credulous.

The sergeant idly stirred the mess with his toe while Mewick, blinking and hand-wringing, waited silently before him.

The young soldier stuck his own foot into the scattered pile and teased out a muddied love-charm, which he then bent to pick up. With his fingers he cleaned mud from the knot of long hair, and then held it up, looking at it thoughtfully. “Why is it,” he asked of no one in particular, “we never catch a young girl out here?”

At that moment the mounted man had his head turned away, looking back over his shoulder. Rolf, without an instant’s foreknowledge of what he was going to do, moving in a madness that was like calm, bent down and picked from the roadbed a rock of killing size, and threw it with all his strength at the head of the young dismounted soldier.

The young man was very quick, and managed somehow to twist himself out of the way of the missile. It flashed in a grazing blur past the astonishment of his fishwide eyes and mouth. With a sensation of deep but calm regret at having missed, Rolf bent to pick up another stone. Without time for surprise, he saw from the corner of his eye that the stocky sergeant was slumping folded to the ground, and that Mewick’s arm was drawn back, about to hurl a small bright thing at the man who was still mounted.

The young soldier who had dodged Rolfs first rock had drawn his short sword now, and was charging at Rolf. Rolf had another rock ready to throw, and the tactics he employed with it came from children’s play-battles with clods of mud. A faked throw first, a motion of the arm to make the adversary duck and doge, then the real throw at the instant of the foe’s straightening up. This way Rolf could not get full power behind it, but still the rock stopped the soldier, crunching into the lower part of his face. The soldier paused in his attack for just a moment, standing as if in thought, one hand raised toward his bloodied jaw, the other still holding out his short sword. And in that instant Mewick was on him from the side. A looping kick came in an unlikely-looking horizontal blur to smash into the soldier’s unprotected groin; and as he doubled, helmet falling free, Mewick’s elbow descended at close range upon his neck, with what seemed the impact of an ax.

Two riderless beasts plunged and reared in the little road, and now there were three of them as the last of the troopers finally dismounted, in a delayed slumping fall, clutching at a short knife-handle fastened redly to his throat. In another moment the three freed animals were galloping back along the road to the northeast, in the direction from which they had come.

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