Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

She was not very talkative, he thought. In fact it seemed to him that the silence was definitely growing awkward, before she suddenly announced: “I am sure that my family will pay some ransom for me if you were to find a way of returning me to the Offshore Islands. We are not poor, and our city was never overrun by the East.”

Rolf munched for a while in thoughtful silence.

The less he told her now, the better, he decided. She might become separated from him in some way, and fall again into Eastern hands. He said: “It doesn’t seem likely that I’ll be able to take you home. Not very soon.”

Eagerly she edged a little closer to him, again putting back her long brown hair. “You wouldn’t have to take me all the way. If you could show me how I can reach one of the armies of the West, I would – I would pledge that my family would reward you.”When he was silent her eagerness faded. “I know, it would mean having to wait for your money. And why should you believe me at all?”

“I have heard your accent before. I believe you, about your family. But I have other business that must be taken care of, that cannot wait.”

She said no more for a while. But after they had led the animals back to deeper shelter, she said: “I do not know if you are waiting here foryour friends, or what. I suppose you don’t want to tell me.”

Rolf threw himself down in the spot where he had slept, and aftera moment Catherine sat nearby, next to her rolled-up cloak. She went on: “Maybe you have to divide your loot with them. I don’t know how such things are maifaged among bandits. But if you are not planning to meet them, or if you have given “them up for lost, then you might come with me, and join the West. I am sure that they need sturdy men.”

“Hm. Or even if I wanted to run out on my friends, not split the loot with them at all, I could do that.” He paused, wickedly enjoying her confusion. “But there are good reasons why I cannot do that. Not right now.”

She was downcast, but persistent. “I understand, you have that great jewel to profit from. Why should you get mixed up in battles? Maybe you even were once a Western soldier, and deserted. I know some men become bandits that way. I do not know or care, I only know that you have helped me more than you can know, and I want to thank you for it. Since you have done it, for whatever reason, you might as well have the reward. My father is a burgomaster of Bir-gun, which asyou may knowis one of the chief cities of the Offshore Islands, a city never touched by the East and still powerful. Prince Duncan’s home is not far from there, and I am sure that you have heard of him.”

“A friend of yours, no doubt.”

“I have seen him. Not much more than that.”

“If your city was untouched, how did you come to be a slave?”

She looked off into the distance. “A long story, like many others you must know. I was traveling away from home, and caught up in an Eastern raid… I am sure my kinsmen must be searching for me, and their gratitude will be great toward anyone who brings me back.” Her eyes came back to Rolf. “And no one in the Islands would think you a thief for having taken some Eastern jewels at the same time.”

Both were silent for a little while. Then Catherine went on, as if more to herself than to Rolf: “There is also the man to whom I was pledged in marriage, but it has been so long… more than a year since I was lost. He may well be married to another by now, or dead, for he was a soldier.” She seemed calm enough about it, as if all that former life were decades behind her instead of only months; and Rolf understood her; his life too had been broken off in the same way.

Evidently encouraged because he was at least tolerating her talk, she asked: “Do you know anything of how the war is going?”

He thought a little, and made an answer that any alert bandit should be able to give. “Duncan keeps an army in the field, keeps the fight going. Ominor can’t seem to drive him off the mainland, or plant him in it either.”

A sparkle shown in Catherine’s good eye. “I tell you, the West is going to win. If they have not been beaten by this time, it never can be done.”

“The same thing might be said about the East,” Rolf said drowsily, and closed his eyes. “I’ll think on what you’ve said. No more of it for now. Try and get some more sleep. Later in the day the Constable may be coming near, and we’ll need to be alert.”

They spent the remaining daylight hours in their hideaway, resting, watching, trying to help the animals. The beasts were in pain from their infected wounds, and one of them was limping noticeably. Rolf glimpsed a reptile in the distant sky, but he could not tell what business it was about. In the last hour before sunset he grew restless and impatient, listening intently at every far-off sound. As soon as it was dark, having eaten again, they set off into the northwest, leading the animals until the day’s stiffness should be worked out of their muscles.

At the first rest stop the girl said to him: “Let me ask you bluntly. Do you mean to keep me with you? What will you do with me?”

“Have I not used you better than your previous master did? Of course. What are you worried about? The less you know of my business, the better off you are, I think.”

“I see that.”She spoke softly and reasonably. “It is only that I have hopes of traveling west, of getting home. I did think of running away from you, but I do not fear you anymore. And I know nothing of the land here, or where the armies are.”

“Let me think about it, I say again. Don’t worry. You are not getting any farther from your goal.”

For the remainder of the night Catherine said no more about her hopes and fears, and had very little to say on any subject. Rolf set a steady pace that covered a good many kilometers, though now both animals were limping and the humans walked more than they rode. Toward dawn they came upon a running stream with tree-lined banks. After drinking their fill, they were searching for some good cover against the coming hours of daylight, when out of nowhere a great gray bird came down, first a soundless shadow and then a somehow unreal though solid presence, big as a man, squatting in the grass before them. Catherine half-raised one hand, as if to point, then froze.

“Greetings, Roolf.” The bird’s voice was as soft and musical as that of the previous night’s messenger, but Rolf thought this was a different bird; most of them looked much alike to him. The bird went on: “Strijeef of the Feathered Folk sends his greetings.”

“Take mine to him, good messenger, if you will. What other news?”

“Only that, to the south of you, humans and powers are gathering still, of the East and of the West. It seems that both armies may followyooou intooo the north.”

“Are there any orders for me?”

“Prince Duncan sends you this word: I am to take what you are carrying, and fly on with it ahead, if you can tell me where to go with it; if Ardneh does not object.”

Rolf thoughtfully fingered the pouch wherein the great jewel lay. “No. Tell the Prince the answer must still be no. If it seems I am about to be taken, then come to me if you can, and I will give you this. Not otherwise.”

The bird was silent for a bit, then fixed enormous yellow eyes on Catherine. “I must take a report back on this one whooo travels with you.”

“She does so by Ardneh’s will. She is an enemy of the East, that much I am sure about. And a former neighbor of Duncan’s, it would seem. Come, bird, the light is growing. Rest with us through the day; we can find some good place among these trees. We will talk. Then tomorrow night you can bear my answers back to Duncan.”

A little later, when they were securely hidden in a thicket, Rolf looked closely at the stunned face of Catherine, who had not said a word since the bird came down. With a rare full smile on his own face, he said: “Welcome. You see that you have reached the armies of the West.”

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