Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

She only sobbed on. She moved a little, but she was still dazed.

“Don’t be afraid. This will not hurt you much.” He tried to hide the dagger from her with his arm as he moved it toward her head. There seemed to be no doubt where the exact place of hiding was. The dark brown mass of Lisa’s hair was bound up carefully, like the hair of ten thousand other peasant girls across the countryside.

This was the girl who had appeared, seemingly from nowhere, at the house of Rolf’s parents, at the same time that Charmian’s sister had been left with the Lord of Demons. Rolf’s people were obscure farmers, then seemingly remote and safe from wars and magic. No one searching for a hidden thing of power would have had reason to search them.

But six years passed, and war came there. By accident Tarlenot carried off the girl as he had taken others. Whatever rough disposal he might have made of her, her hair would not have been so tidily cared for. In a dream or vision the Dark Lord came, and worked hypnotically; and Tarlenot forgot his own designs, and took the girl right to the citadel. There were no more safe farms; Zapranoth would hide his life where he could see it, and be quick in its defense. So Lisa had been taken to serve a sister who did not know her because both of their minds had been altered by the demon, and because the appearance of the younger girl had probably been changed as well…

She closed her eyes and moaned when Chup set his dagger’s edge to the tough cord by which her hair was bound. When the cord parted, a feeling like the shock of combat ran up the daggerto his hand. It was the first hard evidence that he was right. Lord Draffut, he implored in silence, clamp down your bite and hold the demon occupied. Hold him but a little longer.

The dagger Draffut had given Chup was virginally sharp; he held it like a razor, and severed the first long strands. The girl came out of her daze, then, to scream and try to fight, and he reversed his grip on the dagger and clubbed her quiet with the hilt.

He dragged her limp form closer to his little fire, and laid the first of the cut hair carefully beside the flame. With proper shaving gear, or at least water, the business would have gone more smoothly. But Chup had little inclination and no time to be squeamish; beads of blood came upwelling from the scalp as he shaved rapidly and thoroughly. The girl moaned, but did not move.

Chup noticed first a strange, deep silence all around him. But he did not look round. Then, somewhere nearby, there spoke the voice of Zapranoth, in all its power and majesty: “Little man. What do you think that you are doing there?”

Chup’s hands began to shake, but without looking up or pausing he forced them to shave another swath. He could sense the power of Zapranoth above him, descending onto him -the full power of Zapranoth, whose mere passing in the cave had turned his bones to jelly. Chup sensed also that as long as he kept his full attention on his task, he could balance on a perilous point above annihilation.

“What you are doing is a nuisance to me. Cease it at once, and I will see to it that your death is quick and clean.”

Once pause, at this stage of his work, and he would never work again, nor fight nor play nor love. Chup knew it by some inner warning: do not stop, look, turn. Hands that had mangled the Lord of Beasts would close upon his merely human flesh. Though Chup’s own hands threatened to disobey him, he made them shave more hair and set it by the fire.

“Put down your knife and walk away.” Zap-ranoth’s voice now was not loud so much as it was overwhelming. It seemed impossible that anyone could say -or even think or hope-a word in contradiction. Chup felt his concentration slipping. In a moment he would answer, he would turn, he would face Zapranoth and die.

“Powers of the West!” he cried aloud. “Come to my help!” His hands meanwhile kept at their work.

“I am the only power who can reachyou now, and what you are doing arouses my displeasure. Put down your knife and walk away. I repeat, you shall have a clean death if you do -clean, and far in the future, after a long and pleasant life”

Lisa-Carlotta’ face was changing, as the last of her hair was taken off. The ugly proportions of her nose and jaw and forehead flowed and melted into shapes of beauty, as some pressure that had steadily deformed them was removed. She whimpered, in a new and lighter voice. In spite of her dirt and her raw, oozing scalp, Chup thought he could see Charmian’s sister in the unconscious face.

“Put down your knife,” said Zapranoth, “or I devour you. You will join your whining Beast-Lord in my gut, where both of you can cry forever.”

Chup turned, but just enough to feed a little more wood into the fire, still not looking up toward the demon. Then between thumb and finger Chup lifted a lock of Zapranoth’s life from the dark brown pile beside the flame. He tried to think how Western wizards worded their spells, but he could not remember ever hearing one of them. True, it might not be necessary to say anything at all, with Zapranoth’s life right in his hands. But he suspected that against such an adversary, all the help that he could get would not be too much.

In his insistent, overwhelming voice the demon said: “Far from here is a mountain that I know of, having hidden in it gold in amounts undreamed of even by Som the Dead. I see now, Chup of the North, that I have greatly underestimated you. I am prepared to bargain, to avoid the trouble you can cause me.”

And Chup fed the first of Zapranoth’s life into the fire, saying: “You will fall by the flame. The knife of fire is in your head.”

The words were rather good, Chup thought, pleased at his own unexpected power of invention. From outside there came what might have been an indrawn breath, but was a sound too deep for human ears to fully register. Then Zapranoth said: “I am convinced, Lord Chup. From now on we must deal as equals.”

Very good, thought Chup. What to say next?

“Your ears are cut off.”

“I submit to you, Lord Chup! You are my master, and I will serve no other, so long as you permit me to survive! As good beginning to my service, let me take you to the golden mountain that I spoke of. Deeper inside it even than the vault of gold, lies buried an emerald so great-”

Chup opened his mouth and found words coming to him. “Opening him with this knife of fire. Separating flesh – ”

The scream began in the mighty voice of Zapranoth, but ended in the shrilling of a woman. She cried out then: “Ah, mercy, master! Burn me no more. To you I must show myself in my true form.” And Chup without stopping to think looked out of his ruined building, and saw a young woman stretched out on the ground, clothed scantily in her own long hair of fiery red, and in her one body she was all the women he had everyearned to have, yes, Charmian among them. To Chup she stretched out her imploring arms. “Ah, spare me, lord!”

He craved no more the gold and emeralds of the East, but this temptation could have moved him. Still, he knew better than to heed another lie. He burned more hair.

“Separating flesh, piercing hide. I give him to the flames.”

The woman screamed again, and in mid-scream her voice belonged to something else, surely nothing human, and surely not the powerful Lord of Demons; but yet it was Zapranoth’s. With shaking hands Chup fed more hair into the crackling flame. He was somehow making up the words he needed, or they were being sent to him.

“In the name ofArdneh-”

Where had that name come from? Where had he heard it, before now?

“In the name of He-Who-Wields-The-Lightning, Breaker of Citadels, I fetter Zapranoth. I fetter him with metal. I make his members; So that he cannot struggle. I force him to vomit what is in his stomach.”

Chup looked outside. The image of the woman was gone, and in its place lay something huge, that made Chup think of greasy ashes, and of a mound of corpses on a field of war. The thing was fettered in mighty hoops of shining metal, and the labored breathing of it sounded like the wind. The greasy ashes stirred and struggled, made heads and tails and many-jointed limbs, but could not get from out the binding bands. And now a mouth larger than any of the others appeared, yawning as if forced open from inside, and from it there tumbled forth all manner of wretched people and beasts. The people wore the clothes of many lands, or none at all, and rolled about and lay stunned and crying like newborn babes, though most of them were grown. Among them were some soldiers of the West, their weapons still in hand. And there was one huge figure, that Chup recognized…

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred