Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Slowly but steadily the kilometers flowed by beneath the plodding beasts. Twice during the afternoon Rolf halted to rest and tend the animals as well as possible, and for long stretches he and Catherine walked. Far behind, there was still dust on the horizon. He groped for Ardneh’s presence once more, and this time received a feeling of reassurance; help was to be granted, or was being granted now. What kind of help was not explained, but Rolf felt somewhat easier. He was further cheered when at last the reptiles screamed their final insults and began their forced retreat, to the safe roosts they must seek out before the coming of the night.

Rolf shortly called a halt. The mounts were swaying and stumbling with fatigue, and the place they had come to offered grazing as promising as any they were likely to find. It was a nearly dried-out watercourse, marked along its edges by abundant grass, a few bushes, and even scattered trees.

The animals’ wounds included several ugly punctures that seemed likely to become infected. When they had done what they could for the beasts, and eaten a little themselves, it had grown dark. “Rest,” Rolf grunted. Catherine, looking too tired to answer, collapsed into a silent heap.

He was too tired himself to try to stay awake when the likelihood of an enemy coming seemed vanishingly small. He arranged his weapons handily and began to doze off in the warm night, his back against the curved bank of the dry channel. Vaguely he wondered about Catherine, how she had come to be a slave, what she would want… he was too sleepy to think long.

Waking abruptly to the racketing of insects, he quickly surveyed the night-world about him before he moved. The starry powder of the Milky Way made a vast diagonal blaze across the sky. It took a second or two before he saw what had somehow awakened him. Perched high on the opposite bank of the ravine, a great bird rested motionless, its feathered bulk cutting a dark pattern from the light of stars. When Rolf turned his head toward the bird he saw the huge wings open and reach out, balancing, far wider than a man’s spread arms.

Its voice was musical, and so soft he had to listen carefully to make sure of all the words. “Rooolf of the Brooken Lands, rest no moore this night. Those who pursue you are not far away, and they will come on with the first of the morning light.”

Rolf glanced up at the stars to gauge the time. He had only slept for three or four hours, but felt considerably refreshed. The riding-beasts, used to birds, were dozing on their feet where he had picketed them a little distance off. He got to his feet and began to gather his few belongings. He asked the bird: “What of my friends who fought to buy me time?”

“The one whoo spoke to me was a tall, fat wizard,” the bird replied. “He said to tellyooou that Metzgar had fallen, but that the others fared well enough.”

“Ah.” Tall Metzgar, of the long beard, and long stories…

“Also I must tell youuu that more friends, and enemies, are beginning to move into this country from the south. But all of them are kilometers and kilometers away as yet. Also, Duncan wants to know what you are doooing now.”

“Tell Duncan I am going on,” said Rolf. He shot a quick look at Catherine, but she gave no sign of having moved since she lay down. He introspected for a moment, and found something new. “And tell Duncan, and the fat wizard, that now I must angle more toward the West. I am going to travel an hour or so and try to hide again before dawn. If the pursuers can be led straight on north, or east, it will be a considerable help.”

The bird hooted once, assentingly, then rose with a silent effort and disappeared among the stars, just as Catherine stirred. A moment later she sat up, looking groggy and bewildered.

“Get up,” he ordered. “We have more distance to cover before the dawn.” She sighed and got to her feet slowly but without complaint. Only now did he notice that she had evidently not managed to find a pair of sandals. Well, if the animals held out, it would make little difference.

There was not much water left in the bag, but the country was no longer desert-dry and Rolf was not much concerned on that account. The animals seemed strong enough, but restless, as if their wounds were paining them. Catherine dozed in the saddle from time to time; Rolf would see her head start to sink forward, then jerk erect as she caught herself into wakefullness. It was not a good time for talking; the ears had to be kept free for more important matters.

Before the sky had begun to pale in the east, they came to another mud-bottomed creek bed. This was wider than the last one and filled with tall, reedy flowers. These were full-leaved enough in places to form fairly secure screens against aerial observation. Rolf made a screen for the animals against the high bank of the dry creek, under which they were willing enough to lie when he had given them some water. He and Catherine found dry spots close together at a little distance from the animals, and after bending a few flower-stalks overhead for better concealment lay down and promptly slept.

When Rolf awoke again the sun was full and bright, hurling splinters of its light between leaves into his face. Insects murmured undisturbed in the full drowse of summer day. The girl, curled up in her brown servant’s dress, face hidden resting on her rolled-up cloak, still slept. Her back was to Rolf, her breathing regular, her legs pulled up inside her dress. He noticed that the bottoms of her bare feet were calloused hard.

He arose silently and went on a brief scouting expedition, fifty meters or so up and down the mud-bottomed gully, not getting far from the tall flowers. He studied the sky with great care but saw no reptiles. He found a place where it seemed a little digging might reach water. And he stood looking long to the northwest. There were some trees in that direction, and a great deal of long grass, but the cover seemed inadequate for an attempt at traveling by day. They had finally managed to lose the enemy and there was no sense in being spotted again at once. He tried to weigh in his mind the odds that the Constable would bring his men this way, find the creek-bed, follow it, and flush them out, before darkness fell again.

He could hope that Ardneh would warn him again in time, but he could not be sure. It seemed to him that he had scores of kilometers yet to travel.

He went quietly back to Catherine, who had stirred in her sleep, stretched out her legs, and turned her face up. Now she looked very young. Her face was not pretty, he thought, even apart from the still-swollen and discolored cheekbone and a few odd scratches and smears acquired in the last day and night. Her nose was just off-shape enough to deny her prettiness in any case. And her stretched-out body now looked a little awkward.

But she was most certainly a girl. He had not had the leisure until now to consciously consider her as such.

An insect whirred close above her face. Waking suddenly, she sat up with a start, regarded him with bewilderment for a moment, and then sank back, remembering.

“I have got away from her,” she said then, softly, looking all around as if awakening from some evil dream, and making sure of reality. Then she looked at Rolf and added: “Your friends have not caught up with us. Are we to meet them somewhere?”

“Nor my enemies, either.” He regarded her silently for a few moments. “Your black eye looks better than it did.”

Her gaze dropped as if in sudden shyness. “What will we do now?”

“Eat some food. Dig a hole in this mud, we’ll probably be able to get some drinkable water. It may take a while, but we’ll be here all day with little else to do. Don’t want to travel with the reptiles watching, not once we’ve lost them.”

She got up stiffly, brushing back from her eyes long hair that had come unbound. “Shall I start digging right away?”

“See about getting a little food ready. I’ll dig. The animals are going to need more water soon.”

Rolf took a long knife and dug for a while in the likeliest-looking place he could fnd, a sandy area against a bank. At first only soupy muck appeared, but after some diligence in scooping out the hole and patience in letting it refill, a supply of usable water was available. After he led the animals to drink, he and Catherine sat eating dried food and finishing the contents of the waterbag.

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