Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

He was in a cave. He could not at once be certain of its size, but he thought it was enormous. The overhead curve of its roof was too smoothly rounded to be natural. The upper part of the cave was filled with light, though its rounded sides and top were dark; the lower part, up to what was perhaps the middle, was filled with the glowing fluid from which Chup had just been lifted, an enclosed lake of restless energy. Chup knew now that he had reached his goal, what he had heard the soldiers call the Lake of Life.

Like some gigantic bear reared on two legs, immersed to his middle in the lake, there stood the shaggy figure of a beast. His fur was radiant, of many colors or of none, as if of the same substance as the lake. Chup could not see the creature’s face as yet, because he could not turn or lift his head. Chup’s head swung like a pendulum, neckless and bodiless, from what must be this great beast’s grip on his long hair.

He could, however, move his eyes. Where his body should have been below his chin there was nothing to be seen except receding strings of droplets, not gore, but drops of multicolored glory from the lake. Falling dripping from his neck stump, out of sight beneath his chin, the droplets splashed and merged into the glowing lake whence they had come. Chup understood now that he, his head, had been immersed and saturated in the lake, and that had been enough to restore life, with no least sense of shock or pain.

The grip upon his hair now turned his pendulum-head around, and now he saw the High Lord Draffut’s face. It was a countenance of enormous ugliness and power, more beast than human certainly, but gentle in repose. And now Chup saw that in his other hand the Beast-Lord held like a doll the nude and headless body of a man. Like a child washing a doll he held the body down, continually dipping and washing it in the Lake of Life. With the splashing and the motion the brilliance of the liquid intensified into soft explosions of color, modulating in waves of light the steady gentle lumination of the air inside the cave.

And now, in his enormous shaggy hand, very like a human hand in shape but far more powerful and beautiful, the High Lord Draffut raised the headless thing and like a craftsman turned it for his own inspection. Like that of one newborn, or newly slain, the muscular body writhed and floundered uncontrolled. On its skin Chup could count his old scars, like a history of his life. He marked the jaggedness of the neck stump, where Charmian had hacked and sliced unskillfully. From its severed veins the elixir of the lake came pumping out like blood, and tinged with blood.

The hand that held Chup’s head up by its hair now shifted its grip slightly. Turning his eyes down once again, he beheld his own headless, livingbody being brought up close beneath his head. Its hands grasped clumsily, like a baby’s, at Draffut’s fur when they could feel it. Closer the raw neck stump came, till Chup could hear the fountaining of its blood vessels. And closer yet, until there came a pressure underneath his chin –

His head had not been breathing, nor felt any need to breathe; now there came a choking feeling, but it entailed no pain. It ended as the first rush of lung-drawn air caught coldly in his mouth and throat. Then with a sharp tingle came the feelings of his body, awareness of his fingers clutched in fur, of his feet kicking in the air, of the gentle pressure of the great hand closed around his ribs.

That hand now bore him down, to immerse him completely in the lake once more. Once he was below the surface, his breathing stopped again, not by any choking or impediment but simply because it was not needed there. A man plunged into clearest, purest water would not call for a cup of muddy scum to drink; so it was that his lungs made no demand for air. Then in two hands Chup was lifted out, to be held high before an ugly, gentle face that watched him steadily.

“I came – ” Chup began to speak with a shout, before he realized there was no need for loudness. The lake gave the impression of filling all the cave with waterfall-voices, as sweet as demons’ noise was foul, but yet in fact a whisper might be heard.

“I came as quickly as I could, Lord Draffut,” he said more normally. “I thank you for my life.”

“You are welcome to what help I have to give. It is long since any thanked me for it.”The voice of Draffut, deep and deliberate, was fit for a giant. His hands turned Chup like a naked babe undergoing a midwife’s last inspection. Then Draffut set him, still dripping with the lake, upon a ledge that-Chup now saw -ran all the way around the cavern. This ledge, and the huge cave’s walls and curving roof, were of some substance dark and solid as the goblet in which the demon had brought him his healing draught long days ago. The ledge was at a level but little higher than the surface of the lake. Seeing at a distance was difficult in the cavern’s glowing air, but at its farthest point from Chup the ledge seemed wider, like a beach, and there were other figures moving on it, perhaps of other beasts who tended other men.

The Beast-Lord said: “I cannot command the val-kyries, or I would have sent them for you. If I could choose what men I help, I would help first those who fight against the demons.”

Chup opened his mouth to answer. But now that he was no longer bathed in the fluid of life, a great weakness came over him, and he could only lean back against the wall and feebly nod.

“Rest,” said Draffut. “You will grow stronger quickly, here. Then we will talk. I would give all men sanctuary, and heal them, but I cannot… I sent for you because you are the first man in the Black Mountains in many years who has cared for a fellow creature’s suffering. A small beast brought me the news that you had saved it from a demon.”

For a moment Chup could not remember, but then it came to him: in the cavern of Som’s treasure hoard. Still he was too feeble to do more than nod.

He tried again to study the figures moving in the cavern’s farthest reaches, but could not see them clearly, so vibrant was the air with light and life. The ledge Chup rested on was of a dull and utter black, but covered tightly with a film as thin and bright as sunlight, a glowing, transparent skin formed of the fluid of the lake. The film was never still. At one spot there would begin a thickening in the film, a thickening that swelled and pulsed, rose up and broke away, becoming a living separation that went winging like a butterfly. And from some other place there would spring a similar fragment, perhaps bigger than the first, big enough to be a bird, flying up and sagging as its wings melted, but not dying or collapsing, only putting out new wings of some different and more complex shape and flying on to collide in the singing, luminous air with the butterfly, the two of them clinging together and trembling, seeming on the verge of growing into something still bigger and more wonderful; but then diving deliberately together and melting back into the gracefully swirling body of the lake, with their plunge splashing up droplets that fell again into the patterned film that glided shining and without ceasing over the black substance of the ledge.

Feeling some returning strength, Chup raised one hand to touch his neck. Running his fingers all the way around, he followed the scar, thin, jagged, and painless, of his death wound. Once more he tried to talk.

“Lord Draffut, is the battle over?”

Draffut turned his head toward the far end of the Lake. “My machines are still working without pause. The battle goes on. From what I have heard from beasts and men, the foul demon is likely to prevail, though if the issue were left to swords alone, the West would win.”

“Then there is little time for us to act.” Chup tried to rise, but felt no stronger than the splashing butterflies of light.

“Your healing is not finished. Wait, you soon will be strong enough to stand. What do you mean, we must act?”

“We must act against the one you call ‘foul demon’-if you are as much the demons’ enemy as you claim, and I have heard.”

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