Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Loford: “What I am getting at is this. Could not a bird take it? As described, the stone is easily light enough for one to lift.”

This time Rolf had to think longer. At last he shook his head. “No. Rather, it will be much better if we do not have to do it that way. Better for it to go by bird than not at all, but… it is important also that I go, there is some job for me to do, at the same place where the stone is needed.” He shook his head again.

Loford scratched his head. “Then we must try to guard you too, and send you on unscratched if possible… what is it makes your jaw drop, swordsman? Have you managed a clear thought?”

Chup stopped his fixed staring at the high windows opposite, gave his head a shake, and blinked. “It may be that today I rode too long staring into the sun. I thought I saw -a woman.”

“Well? And why not?” Loford asked reasonably.

Chup only shook his head again, and went back to observing the apartment where the High Constable lodged.

Rolf turned to Loford. “A while ago you said that by tomorrow they may be growing a little careless. But will they not also be on their way?”

“I think not.” Loford slouched massively on the low windowsill, and with a slight nod indicated the far side of the courtyard. “A groom has begun paring at the hooves of several of the loadbeasts we followed today.” That meant no long journey could be contemplated for those animals tomorrow. “We should have tonight and tomorrow to get ready, and tomorrow night to strike and run.”

They could not decide on a scheme for getting a closer look at the Constable’s quarters. After a while Rolf said: “One of us at least should go to the tavern, hear what the soldiers in the Constable’s escort have to say.” After a moment he added. “I wish that one of you two would go.”

Chup gave him a quizzical glance. “Do the painted women make you nervous, young one?”

“No-yes. Because always in the background there’s one who owns them. And that people should be owned does bother me, though it seems sometimes not to bother the slaves. I am made nervous in such a way that I want to kill that man.”

Chup emitted a little snort. “Well, I am not likely to tremble with nervousness in yonder house of joy, nor draw curious glances my way by killing someone. I’ll volunteer to go, and brave whatever hardships duty may put in my way.”

When Chup had taken off his sword, and strolled away, Lofbrd asked: “There is something else we are to do?”

“I think so. Yes. It will be here in the courtyard,- something or someone that I should watch or wait for.” Not long ago, he would have thought the hunch was purely his; but he was beginning to grow accustomed to Ardneh’s subtlety.

Taking an empty waterbag, Rolf strolled out into the courtyard, leaving Loford to defend their quarters against sneak thieves or possible late arrivals at the caravanserai. The scene was generally quiet now. A servant trotted past on some errand. Animals made plaintive sounds. A few men, apparently herdsmen or lower-class traders of some kind, peered ruminatively from the windows of the lower rooms. From what Chup had called the house of joy came a burst of women’s laughter, and then the thumping of a tambourine. Somewhere the slavemaster would be sitting, his eyes like stone though his mouth laughed or sipped at wine.

Rolf went to the well, hauled up cold water from its depths, and drank. He took his time filling the waterbag. Watching the building in which the Constable was lodged, he saw a pair of white bare feet descending the uppermost visible portion of the mostly enclosed stair, bearing above them a shadowy figure that upon emergence into the brighter courtyard revealed itself to be that of a servant girl. She was a tall girl, quite young and despite her slenderness apparently quite strong; over her shoulders rode a yoke holding two large buckets that would be quite weighty when they were filled. Her hair and dress were both of undistinguished brown, the former bound up out of the way under a servant’s cap. Her face was hard to judge, its dominant feature at the moment being a purplish swelling on her cheek that came near to closing her right eye. At best, Rolf thought, she would be plain, her nose and mouth being somewhat large though there was prettiness still in the undamaged eye.

Rolf remained standing near the well while he replaced the stopper in his waterbag. The girl approached, set down her yoke, and began working at once to get the buckets filled. The well was equipped with a rope and windlass by which the wayfarer could lower his own container to the water far below. When the girl began to haul up the first heavy pail from the depths of the well, Rolf caught a hint of her exhaustion in the way she leaned against the crank, pausing momentarily after making a beginning against the weight.

Then he put his own burden down, and stepped around the well, saying: “I will lift it.”

She stood straight for a moment, looking directly at him -she was a centimeter or two taller than he -without any readable expression in her face. Then she pulled once more on the crank herself.

He put her aside from the windlass, moving himself so firmly into position to turn the crank that she had little choice but to stand aside. Only when he had the filled bucket in his hands did he turn to her again, looking at her carefully for a moment before he set it down and took up the empty one. “You have been ill-used, girl,” he said then.

“My mistress insists on being well served,” she said steadily, without any obvious feeling of any kind in her voice. Nothing about her speech suggested that she was a servant. There were half-familiar accents in it that Rolf could not quite place at first, until he realized that they reminded him of Duncan’s speech, which he had often heard in camp, the tones of the nobility of the Off-Shore Islands in the west.

“I would use you better than she does,” he said at once, somewhat surprising himself. He spoke out of policy, of course, offering a drop of sympathy to the maltreated servant in hope of getting some information from her in return; but he meant what he said. And with a faint double shock, two things came to him in rapid sequence; first, that Ardneh had wanted him to go out into the courtyard in order to meet this girl; second, that he had a good idea who her mistress might be, what Lady of the East it was whose servants were more likely than not at any given time to bear the marks of her displeasure, who employed plain-faced maids to make her own great beauty glow the more by contrast.

In the same voice the girl replied: “I doubt that the Lady Charmian would sell me.” This only confirmed Rolfs premonition, but still he came near dropping the second water-bucket. Demons of all the East! He must warn Chup before Chup was recognized. But it would hardly do to run away from the girl just yet, when it seemed she might be starting to communicate.

He set the bucket down. “I doubt that I would pay the Lady Charmian in any coin she would willingly accept.”

The girl seemed to look more closely and humanly at him then, but only for a moment. Saying nothing, she bent to fasten her buckets to the yoke. When she would have lifted it, however, Rolf stepped in her way again, and with a grunt took up the double load.

“You have been kind,” she said, still distantly, “but it will be better for you if you are not seen aiding me. And better for me if I am not seen receiving kindness from a man.”

Rolf nodded slowly. “What will help you, girl? And what’s your name?”

“Catherine, sir. And thank you, but there is no help forme.” The calm in her voice was no longer as true as it had been. She came to him and her tall body brushed his as she took the yoke on her own shoulder.

He let it go, but walked beside her as she moved back toward the stair. “You have not been long in the Lady’s service, have you?”

“Not long?” She checked herself. “No -days only, not months or years. What is it to you?” When they reached the bottom of the stairwell they were for the moment alone out of sight of others, and she paused and looked at him somewhat more carefully than before.

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