Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Rolf sat with his back against a fallen trunk, facing across the stream, which was here only six or eight meters wide, and very shallow. With his right hand he patted the smooth grass beside him, indicating to Catherine where she was invited to sit.

She had given up trying to study her face in the water, but asyet she came no closer. “I do not know, sir, whether I should. Still, I suppose you are now my commanding officer, and if I flout your orders I am liable to find myself in some military court.”

A cloud of irritation passed over his face. “No, don’t joke about that. Giving orders, I mean.” She sat back with her feet tucked under her, looking at him steadily. “I mean, I have seen people I knew executed by military courts. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to squelch a joke. You must have had few chances for them, since…when were you taken by the East?”

“A lifetime ago.” No longer close to laughing, she got up slowly, and with her hands rubbed her bare arms as if she were peeling, scraping, something off. “But let’s not talk about that now. I wish this stream were deep enough to swim and soak in it.” Her servant’s dress was stained, as were Rolf’s clothes, with travel and hard usage, and her bound-up brown hair was dull with dust. But she looked less tired by far than she had before their flight.

“We could look for a deeper place,” he said. “I would enjoy a swim myself, I think.” He felt a little pulse begin, inside his head.

“Leave these trees, in daylight?”

“I meant tonight. At dusk.”

She came nearerthen, though not quite as near as his patting hand had indicated, and sat down. Her eyes flicked at him, unreadably; at nineteen he had long since given up trying to understand women.

He said: “I should never have mentioned that man you were to wed.”

“No. I am thinking only of the girl I was, and how I have been changed. How when I was young I flirted and laughed and teased.”

“When you were young? What are you now, about seventeen?”

“Two years ago I was fifteen, I think. But now I am no longer young.”

“So, you are really such an old woman.” Now his voice was growing more soft and tender. “Then you must be a fit companion for an old man like myself. ” And somehow he had traversed the little distance that had been between them, and his fingers had begun a gentle stroking of her bare arm, up to the coarse slave’s-cloth at the shoulder.

Her look seemed to say to him that his behavior was far from being unendurable; that, perhaps, if it went on a little longer it might begin to give her pleasure. His arm would have needed less encouragement than that to start unhurriedly going around her. It had always seemed to Rolf something of a wonder how this hard and angular limb of his always managed to adapt itself so neatly and exactly to the soft job of girl-holding. This one was certainly a soft girl now, regardless of how lean and strong she had appeared only a little while ago. Now in response to a firm pressure of his fingers on her cheek (safely below the blackened eye) her face turned round to his more fully. He found her lips.

Her smooth face rubbed willingly under his straggly beard. Time passed, then seemed about to be forgotten. Now he would kiss tenderly the swelling on her cheekbone, before he began a line of kisses moving down her throat.

Now, what was this upon her skin?

What had happened –

What –

With an outcry Rolf sprang to his feet and backed away, stumbling and almost falling in his haste. He grabbed up his sword and half-drew it from its sheath before he was aware of doing so, and when he became aware he scarce knew whether to finish pulling out the blade or push it back.

Before him now, and lately enfolded most tenderly in his arms, was one of the most hideous human shapes it had ever been his ill fortune to behold. What had been Catherine’s healthy young face had altered while he kissed it to the visage of a withered, snaggle-toothed, misshapen crone. Even where he now stood, some meters distant, he thought he could still taste the pestilent breath. Under stiff, dirt-colored hair, tied up just as the young girl’s had been, were the face and neck of an unrecognizable old woman, skin wrinkled as a rag, dotted with warts and here and there a whisker. The strong smooth arms that Rolf had felt about his neck were shrunken now to quivers of loose skin in which bones slid like crooked arrows. The breathing that had moved young breasts against him now had altered to a scraping wheeze, coming from a body as shapeless as the dress that covered it.

The old woman staggered to her feet, groping before her with fingers gnarled like roots. Her features worked, but her face was so distorted by age and disease that Rolf could not for a moment guess whether it was terror, anger, or laughter that moved her now.

Moving like some crippled sleepwalker, she tottered toward him on the brink of the grassy bank. “Rolf?” she cawed out the one word, in something like a reptile’s voice, and then her figure seemed to blur, and down she fell on hands and knees.

Later he could not estimate how long he had stood there, rubbing his eyes, trying to see the figure before him clearly once again. In time he discovered that the blurring was not in his eyes, but in the female shape before them. Then all at once she was as she had been before he took her in his arms; healthy and young, the purplish-green bruise upon her cheek, vital brown hair struggling to escape the tie that bound it up. It was Catherine on her hands and knees, her face convulsed in terror. “Rolf?” she cried out once again, this time in her own voice, and he threw down his sword and fell on his knees beside her.

She covered her face with her hands, until he pulled them away gently. Her whisper was still terrified: “How do you see me now?”

He put out a hand to caress her, but sudden suspicion made him draw it back. “As a girl. As you were when we first met.”

“Thank all the powers of the West. Then she could not make it permanent… why do you still look at me so? What do you see?”

Shaken, he blurted clumsily: “I see a girl. But how do I know which is your true shape, this one or the other? What kind of magic is this?”

“What kind of magic? Hers, the evil woman’s… she has found some way to do this foul thing to me. I know it.” Now the first immensity of Catherine’s terror was gone, but tears were standing in her eyes. “I heard it from her and others, that never in my life should I escape her. The Lady Demon, Charmian.”

Gazing at the young form before him, Rolf suddenly could no longer believe that it might be a lie, the product of some Eastern enchantment. Catherine had none of Charmian’s glamor; her youth and health was marked with human awkwardness and imperfection. She was too complete and varied to be unreal. He said, reassuringly: “There are Western wizards who can deal with any spell.”

“Hold me,” she whispered, and he took her in his arms again. For a while he comforted, he soothed, and all was well. Once more he kissed the bruised cheekbone, which this time did not change. And then, as his caresses ceased to be meant as comforting, he saw the first sagging wrinkle appear upon her cheek.

This time he did not retreat so rapidly or so far, but still he let her go. This time he watched the progress of the cycle with compassion, as Catherine passed through decrepit ugliness and back to youth again. Then they were silent for a little while, looking at each other like grave children.

“It is when I embrace you as a man with a woman that it happens,” he said at last. And she nodded, but made no other move. A long time passed before she spoke at all.

Near sundown, as Rolf awoke from a fitful sleep and began to prepare for another night of travel, he saw a great swarm of reptiles taking shelter for the night in a grove about a kilometer to the southeast. Rolf could see no Eastern ground forces, but they must be near; the reptiles would need at least a few human defenders to survive the night if they were discovered by the Feathered Folk.

With the first true darkness, the bird awoke, and came to perch briefly on Rolf’s hospitably leveled forearm, settling with a surprising spread of soft, balancing wings; it weighed no more than a small child. Pointing south with his free hand, Rolf said: “It is good we did not rest in that grove instead, for there the trees have just filled up with leather.”

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