Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“I think so.” He would rather not try to fight his way up this narrow path, against unknown odds. “I’ll walk a step behindyou, as your aide.” The men above could not be certain of Chup’s and Charmian’s current power and status, not even if they knew she was a prisoner last night. So things went in the intrigue-ridden courts of the East.

Charmian ran combing fingers through her hair, put on a smile, and took the lead. With Chup following impassively they marched another half-turn up the chimney, which brought them into plain view of the pathway’s narrow exit at the top, and of the men who guarded it. These were looking down with, to say the least, considerable suspicion. There were eight or ten of the Guard in view, and Chup noted with inward discouragement that they included pikemen and archers.

Anger in her voice, Charmian called up: “You there, officer! Why do you stare in insolence? Bring cool water to me! We have slipped and fallen and nearly killed ourselves upon your miserable path!” There must be an explanation of her soiled garments, and of Chup’s anger marked upon her cheek and lip.

The faces of the soldiers turned from hard suspicion to noncommittal blankness. On Chup’s breast the chain that Som had given him still swung, massive and golden, and he made sure it could be seen, at the same time he favored the officer with his best haughty and impatient stare.

The Guards officer-a lieutenant -softened considerably from his first hard pose. He could not keep his new perplexity from showing. “My lady Charmian. I had heard that you -” He shifted his stance. “That is, you or no one else is to be allowed to pass this way, according to the orders I have been given.”

“The lady wanted a good look at the fighting,” Chup said, guiding her forward with a touch. From the way some of the soldiers kept glancing over their shoulders he guessed that the action was in plain sight from where they stood.

The lieutenant protested. “Lord, why did you not watch from the battlement instead?” But he made no attempt to block their way. Instead he turned to one of his men, ordering: “Here, find some water for the lady.”

Charmian and Chup had now come right up to the top of the path, and stood among the soldiers. They had emerged in the midst of the broken plain, roughly halfway between the citadel and the sudden drop-off of the cliffs. Looking out over a breastwork of piled rocks, they had a good view of the fighting, perhaps three hundred meters distant. The fight was not at the moment being carried on with blades, but it was none the less a deadly struggle. Holding the roadhead at the pass were some fourscore men of the West, Chup saw, along with the balloons that must have surprised the defenders. The Guard, or most of it, was drawn up on the plain in battle ranks, but only waiting now.

Above the ground between the battle lines, drifting, like some foul cloud of smoke, was Zapranoth. The power of the Demon-Lord was being turned away from Chup, but still he thought he felt its backlash here, and looked away toward the citadel. Small figures were on the parapet; he thought he could see Som. Above the fort, a single valkgrie droned toward its lofty home.

Charmian finished her thirsty drinking from a canteen handed to her by an awkward soldier. “Oh, captain,” she now smiled, dabbing prettily at her sore lips, “I had heard you were a man of gallantry, and I believed it true, and I have climbed that horrible path to reachyou. I wish to see the ending of the battle close at hand, not stand with all the timid females behind a wall. Surely if I go out a little way, a little closer, I will still be safe, with you and all these stalwart men of yours at hand?”

“I… ” The lieutenant floundered, trying to be firm. It was so easy for her. Chup marveled in silence, shaking his head slightly while he took his turn at the canteen. Distant Guardsmen chanted a war cry, and somewhere a reptile cawed.

Charmian was going on. “We do not mean that you should leave your post. The Lord Chup will go with me, but a little way out upon the plain here… I will tell you the truth, there is a wager involved, and I feel I must reward you if you can help me win it.”

The lieutenant had no more chance than if Chup had come upon him here unarmed and alone. In the space of half a dozen more breaths Charmian was being helped over the barricade of stones, her es-cortinglord beside her. As they walked out upon the empty, crevice-riven field that stretched away toward the fighting, he heard the reptile again, cawing somewhere behind them; and this time he thought he could make out a word or two within its noise. Chup took his bride by the arm, as if to steady her on the hazardous ground, and she heeded the silent increase of his fingers’ pressure. They walked faster. With a stride and a stride and another stride, the barricade, the soldiers, and the power of the East fell meter by meter behind them. Not that the way in front was clear.

“… escaaaaped!” came the raw reptile cry, much louder now. “Rewaaards for their bodies, double reward for them alive! Trraaitor, Chup of the Northern Provinces! Prisoner escaped, Charrrmian of the Broken Lands!”

Chup ran, dodging with every second or third stride to spoil the archers’ aim. Charmian, close behind him, screamed as if they had caught her already. Now ahead of him there loomed across his way a chasm, one of the splits that ran in deeply from the mountain’s edge. It was too wide at this point for even a desperate man to try a jump. The farther Chup ran the more treacherously uneven grew the footing, and he dropped to all fours to scramble over it, even as an arrow sang past his ear. From the officer’s bawled orders not far behind, he knew that close pursuit was right at hand. The reptile now shrieked in triumph right above him. Charmian cried out her panic with each breath, but her cries stayed right at Chup’s heels.

He reached the edge of the deep crevice. To follow along it on this footing of broken, tilting rocks would be a slow and tortuous process, and the pursuit could not fail to catch up to easy arrow range at once. To jump across the chasm was impossible. To attempt to scramble down its nearly vertical side would have seemed at any other time like madness, but now Chup unhesitatingly began to slide and grab. Better a quick fall than the demon-pits below the citadel. But all was not lost yet: on a slope this steep there must be overhangs, to offer some protection against missiles from above; and Chup could see now that at a distant bottom the crevice ran out in a dry watercourse and got away from Som.

Chup swung from handholds, danced and bounded, leaping down the slope. Another arrow twirred past him, going almost straight down, and after it the hurtling blur of a slung rock. He started falling, slid and grabbed in desperation, and got his feet upon a ledge that was not much wider than his soles. A moment later he was clutched by Charmian sliding down beside him and almost pulled into the abyss. To his left the ledge all but vanished, then widened into what looked like opportunity, a sizable flat spot under a large overhang. With Charmian still clutching at his garments, he lunged that way. Somehow the two of them scrambled to that spot of comparative safety, on footholds that would have been suicidal if attempted with cold calculation.

They were sheltered from missiles on a flat space big enough to sprawl on carelessly, while they gasped forbreath. Somewhere, ten or twenty meters above them but out of sight, the lieutenant was bawling out a confusion of new orders.

The reptile found them almost instantly. It hovered over the chasm on deft and leathery wings, screaming its loathing and alarm, carefully staying out farther than a sword might sweep. Charmian with a wide swing of her arm threw out a fist-sized rock; through luck or skill it caught a wing. The beast screamed and fell away, struggling in pain to stay in the air.

But it had already screamed out their location to the men above.

Chup stood up and drew his sword and waited for the men to come. From the renewed sounds of battle farther off, he soon picked out a closer sound, the scraping and sliding of sandalled feet on rock, too desperately concerned with footholds to be furtive.

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