Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Chup and Loford were not pausing, but strode on ahead of Rolf across the little dingy room, toward the one door on its farther side, their heavy soft treads shaking the floor slightly, setting muted jin-glings sounding amid the feminine trappings hanging in an open portable wardrobe. The maidservant who had opened the door was still cowering on the floor where Chup had shoved her, paralyzed with shock and fright. Rolf let his murdered sentry down, showed the girl the bloody knife, whispered in her ear: “One squeak and we will cut your throat,” and pushed her into the big wardrobe amid the hanging garments, where she fell to the floor in what was almost silence. He flashed a look of reassurance to Catherine, still leaning on the barred door, and turned after Chup and Loford who were entering the other room.

Some sound, or instinct, must have warned the Lady Charmian. When her husband and the men behind him came through the one door of her little bedchamber, she was standing as if waiting for them. She wore a long, soft lounging garment of some pink satiny stuff; her feet were bare on a soft, thick black rug that must have come to this place with her. The incredible golden cascade of her hair hung well below her waist. Rolf saw her eyes of melting blue, familiar as if he had last seen them only an hour before, go wide as she recognized Chup.

“Silence gives life,” Chup told her briefly, and went past her to the strongbox, which was just where Catherine had said that it would be, standing on a low, crude chest just below the high window with its heavy bars. Chup flicked the side of the box with his swordpoint, once, hesitantly, felt the muted shock of guardian powers, and drew quickly back. Loford shouldered past him to bend over the box, mumbling. Chup moved to where he could watch Charmian and at the same time look back into the outer room of the apartment, where Catherine still waited with her back against the door. Rolf, standing in the doorway between the rooms, could see and feel the mutual hatred pass between her and Charmian.

And now Charmian’s eyes, with a different look, reached for Rolf’s eyes, brushed them once, then fell away, very quickly and shyly. No, her eyes said, it was useless to try to beguile him. She had been too cruel to him long ago; and that was sad beyond bearing, because now, looking back, Charmian could see that he was the one man with whom she might have been happy.

She said it all with that one glance, no matter that it was all impossible nonsense. The falsity of it was irrelevant while she was saying it.

Loford had turned and was extending a massive hand toward the Lady Charmian. “The key,” he said, in almost courtly tones. The strongbox now looked a little larger, the shape of it was somewhat altered, since the wizard had bent over it.

“You are but bandits, then,” Charmian said, while her hand made slow searching motions among the pockets of her robe, as if to find a key. “I warned my Lord the Constable to give more thought to such.

Now perforce he will admit that I was right.” Rolf understood that she was bargaining for her life, telling them as well as she could in the hearing of the servant in the wardrobe, that they would not be named by her as Western soldiers if they would spare her life.

She might be able to make almost anything believable. “I would that you were more than bandits,” she went on, speaking now to Chup, with eyes again as well as words. “I dreamt once that a man had come to carry me away, so that from that day on I would never have to serve another man but him. And in that dream – ”

“The key,” Chup grated in an ugly voice. “Or I will spoil your lying face.” Charmian knew him. She seemed to collapse before the threat, shrinking back against the wall.

“The key is in the bedside table, “she said simply.

Chup kept his eyes on her until Loford had gone to the chest with the key and come back holding up the dark round thing in its silver filigree. Rolf had never seen anything just like it before, but felt Ardneh’s certainty that it was the right thing. Rolf nodded, then added: “Don’t forget the rest.”

They had discussed this point beforehand, too. If they were to be taken forbandits they must not leave a single jewel that they could carry away. Loford went to scoop up other wealth from the box, and stuff his pockets with it. The black jewel, meanwhile, he had tossed to Rolf, who put it into a small empty pouch that waited ready at his belt.

There came a startling, though quiet, trying of the outer door, followed after a moment by a rattling and wrenching that made it thud against its hinges. An indistinct male voice called out, in what might have been anger or alarm. The absence of the sentry from the stair would certainly awaken Eastern vigilance.

Chup’s eyes were still riveted on Charmian’s. In a low voice he demanded: “Is that the Constable?”

She gave a little shiver, an involuntary movement that Rolf thought he had seen her make once before, when men were about to kill each other for her amusement. It seemed a joyous movement. She said: “It is his way; it sounds like him.”

Rolf stepped quietly back to Catherine and took her by the arm. “Let me get in place behind the door,” he whispered. “Then open it and let him – ” He broke off there, for outside at least one more.heavy voice had joined the Constable’s, and the tramp of yet other feet was somewhere on the stair.

Pulling Catherine by the arm, he hurried to the inner room again. There was only the one door, and the windows were narrow and heavily barred. It was well they had made alternate plans. Loford had his sword out and was digging an escape hole in the flimsy ceiling; in a moment Rolf was working at his side. Dried mud fell in his face, and lengths of reed and sapling began to dangle brokenly.

The noise at the door turned into a determined assault. Chup said something that Rolf could not hear to Charmian. Charmian turned to the door and cried out loudly: “Stop! These men will kill me if you force your way in. Stop, they wish to bargain with you!”

The banging and chopping ceased. “Bargain?” roared a man’s deep voice. “With what? Who are they, what do they want?”

“They are bandits,” Charmian cried weakly. Glancing toward her, Rolf saw that she had retreated from Chup’s sword until her head was pressed against the wall, but the sword had advanced until it now poised rock-steady a centimeter from her face. Loss of beauty would be worse than loss of life to her.

There was a pause outside, as if of disbelief. “Well, wondrous stupid ones, so it would seem.” More feet now on the stair, a platoon gathering hurriedly; and overhead now, soft footsteps on the roof; it had not taken the Constable long to order his forces. Now he bellowed, with vast authority: “Ho, in there! The trap is shut on you; unbar this door!” Chup forced his erstwhile bride into the big wardrobe where one of her servant-girls was still cowering in silence. What he said to Charmian at parting Rolf could not hear, but she went in with quiet alacrity.

Loford had ceased prying at the ceiling, and sheathed his sword, but stood still looking upward at the damage while he made the gestures of his magic art. Now he signed to Rolf to cease work also; Rolf did so. But by Loford’s art, the noises they had made when working went right on without a pause, the subdued splintering of light wood, the trickling falls of powdery fragments to the floor were heard, though the hole they had begun in the roof now got no bigger. Now Rolf attacked the floor with his dagger. He labored to pry up a board; Catherine dropped to her knees beside him and wrenched with strong sure hands as soon as he had raised one end enough for her to get a purchase on it. By the art of Loford, who worked on silently above them, the shriek of yielding nails was made to come from overhead.

The Constable’s voice renewed its demands for entry.

“Not so fast!” Chup roared back. “What’ll you give us for your woman’s life?” And he thumped with the flat of his sword on the wardrobe, from which the voice of Charmian hastily called out, serving to demonstrate that she was still alive.

Rolf and Catherine by this time had one floorboard completely up. A quick look down through the gap assured him that the room below was deserted. The soldiers lodged in it would have been called to duty when the alarm broke out.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred