Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“What is it?” she whispered, terrified anew.

“Nothing. Just that we must wait a bit.”

He expected her to ask him why, and wondered how he could answer. But she only stood there with her eyes downcast, face half-hidden by her hair. Surely this behavior was a pose, part of some plan she was evolving. He had seen her terrified before, but never meek and silent.

Considering what to do next, he sat down with his back against the wall, watching the entrance to their alcove. Almost timidly, she slid down beside him. In her new, small voice she said: “Lord Chup, when I was in the cell, I hoped it would beyou who came for me.”

He grunted. “Why?”

“Oh, not that you would come to help me, I didn’t dare hope that. Even now… but I knew that if you came to take revenge, you would be quick and clean about it. Not like Som, not like any of the others.”

He grunted again. Suddenly anxious to know what it would feel like now, freed of all enchantments, he pulled her near, so that their mouths and bodies were crushed together. She gasped and tensed, as if surprised -and then responded, with all her skill and much more willingness than ever before.

And he discovered that to him, the touch of her meant nothing. It was no more than hugging some huge breathing doll. He let her go.

To his surprise, she clung to him, weeping. He had never seen this act before; puzzled, he waited to learn its point.

Between her sobs she choked out: “You-you find me then -not too much changed?”

“Changed?” Then he remembered certain things, that made her puzzling behavior understandable. “No. No, you are not changed at all. Our mighty viceroy was lying about the destruction of your beauty. You look as good as ever, except for a little dirt.” For the first time in days Chup could hear his own voice as an easy, natural thing.

Charmian stared at him for a moment and dared to believe him. Her sobs changed abruptly into cries of joy and relief. “Oh, Chup, you are my lord -high and only Lord.” She choked on fragments of strange laughter.

Feelings Chup had not known were his came fastening on him now like mad familiars. He could not sort them out or put them down. He groaned aloud, jumped up, and pulled Charmian to her feet. He seized her shoulders, gripping them until it seemed that bones might crunch, while she gasped uncom-prehendingly. Then, still holding her with his left hand, he drew back his right and swung it, open-palmed but with all his rage. “That, for betraying me, for using me, for trying to have me killed!”

The blow stretched her out flat, and silenced all her cries. A little time passed before she stirred and groaned and sat up, for once ungracefully. Her hair no longer hid her face. Blood dripped from her mouth and there was a lump already swelling on her cheek. She finally could ask him, in the most dazed and tiniest of voices: “Why now? Why hit me now?”

“Why, better later than never. I take my revenge my own way, as you said. Not like Som, nor any of the others here.” Gripping his sword hilt, he looked out of the alcove, up and down the spiral path. Let them come against him now, he was Chup, his own man, and so he meant to die.

When he saw no understanding in her dazed face, he went on: “Shake your head and get it clear. I was not to lead you out of this foul place. I was to play the court jester for Som and Zapranoth; thus should I prove my fitness to join the elite of the East. They will not have a free man’s service. They must have pledgings, and grovelings, and for all I know, kiss-ings of their hinder parts as well. Then will they open to their tested slave the secrets of power and the doors of wealth. So they say. Liars. Gigglers at cripples, and pullers of wings from flies. I know not if Som stinks of death -or only loadbeast-drop-pings!”

He felt better for that lengthy speech, and better still for the action that had just preceded it. Now there ensued a silence, while his breathing slowed and Charmian’s grew steadier, and she ceased to moan.

And now once more he heard, from far above, the clash and cry of many men at arms.

Charmian, her voice now nearly normal, asked: “Is that Thomas’s assault we hear? The one our generals thought could not be made?”

Chup grunted.

“They of the West bear me great hatred,” Charmian said. “But if I’ve any choice I’ll go to them instead of Som.”

“You’d be wise, if you could do so. They in the West are living men, and many would fall down swooning at a flutter of your eyelids. What is it now?”

Some thought or memory had brought a look of new surprise into her face. “Chup. I have never been down into this cave before-and yet I think I have. Things as they happen seem familiar. The winding path, these alcoves. The sounds the demons make in passing, and the feelings that they bring -the wretched feelings most of all.” She shivered. “But how can I have known them, and not remember plainly?”

His thought was practical. “If you have been in this cavern, or seen it in some vision, then remember a way out of it, that we can use.”

She gave him a long, probing look, with something in it of her old haughtiness. Her bruised face did somewhat spoil the effect. “Have you finished now with taking your revenge on me?”

“I have more important things to think of. Getting out of here, now that I’ve spoiled my pledging. Yes, I’ll help you out if you’ll help me. But turn treacherous again, and I’ll kick you down the pit at once.”

She nodded soberly. “Then I’ll help you all I can, for I know what to expect from Som. What must we do?”

“You ask me? I thought you might recall an exit from this hole. And quickly. While the battle’s fierce, we’re probably forgotten.”

Doubtfully and anxiously she stared at him. “I think-whether it is memory or a vision that I have -I think that there is no way out forus below.” Her voice grew dreamy. “At the bottom of this chimney there are only huge blind chambers in the blackened rock. And strange lights, and the demons roaring past. I would have run back, screaming, but my father gripped my – ” She broke off with a little cry, her blue eyes widening.

“Your father led you down here? Ekuman?” Chup did not bother trying to understand that; if it was part of some new and elaborate deception, he could not see its point. He prompted: “How did you get out? If there’s no way below, we must go up again. Where does the top of this shaft break out of the mountain?”

She had to make an effort to recall herself, to answer him. “I don’t know. I don’t think that I was ever at the top of this chimney. It seems to me we entered and left it at the level of the cells…Chup, why would my father bring me here?”

Not answering, Chup led her out of the alcove, and started on the long ascent, at a good pace. Little was said between them until they drew near the level of the cells again. Here Chup proceeded cautiously, but there was still no one else in sight. The cell that had been Charmian’s was once more unbarred and open. Every available man must have been mobilized to fight; but how long that situation might last was impossible to guess.

He gripped Charmian’s arm. “You sayyou entered and left the shaft here. Remember a way out of the citidel that we can use.”

“I… ” She rubbed her head wearily. “I can remember no such way. We should go on to the top. There must be some exit there, to sunlight if not freedom.”

Chup went up quickly. The sounds of combat were noticeably louder here.

Still they met no one. The chimney straightened to show them the gray-blue sky, over a mouth ringed by ragged outcroppings of rock. The path seemed to go right up to the mouth and out to unbarred freedom.

Chup and Charmian had only one more circuit of the chimney to climb, to its outlet barely ten meters above them, when there appeared there against the sky the head of a man in Guardsman’s helm and collar, looking down. Before Chup could react, the man had seen them. He called out something, as if to others behind him, and withdrew from sight.

“Perhaps I should go first,” suggested Charmian, in a whisper.

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