Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“Hooo! Then I must go quickly and gather my people here.”

“I have some words for you to carry to Duncan, also. Some Eastern magic has been worked upon us.” While Catherine stood by listening, he told the bird in brief what had happened.

“Carry word also,” Catherine added, “that our riding-beasts are failing. One is too far gone to be ridden, I think, and the other not much better.”

Rolf went to inspect the animals himself, but had to agree that Catherine was right. The bird took thought, and then offered: “Let them gooo free. I will send birds tonight to ride and goad them far from here, so if the East should find them tomorrow they will be misled.”

The few belongings they had, weapons and cloaks and a small store of food, made no great burden. With compact bundles on their backs, Rolf and Catherine waved goodby to the bird and stepped off once more to the northwest, at first following the stream closely. There would be no looking for bathing-spots tonight, not with the enemy only a kilometer away. He and Catherine managed to cover about fifteen kilometers before dawn. During the night they saw no more birds; probably all who could fly had been mustered for an attack on the roosting reptile horde.

There was no difficulty on the next morning -or on the next, after another uneventful night of walking -about finding places in which to hide. The country through which they traveled was gradually becoming more thickly wooded, though still the long grass was dominant. The land also grew hillier, and was threaded at frequent intervals with small streams which ended any remaining concern about finding water. Catherine got her bath at last, in privacy.

“You can take a little walk now, Rolf. I’ll catch up when I’m through.”

“What’s the matter? Hey, why pull away?”

She looked at him steadily and pulled away even a little farther. “How can you ask that?”

“Well, but the curse may have expired by this time.”

“Or it may have grown more powerful. I’ll not risk it again. It was easy enough for you, you didn’t have to feel your own body… changing. Don’t try to touch me.”

And he had to admit, with an unwilling sigh, that she was right.

Several more nights of travel passed without notable incident. Nightly a bird came to them, bringing news of how the rival armies had maneuvered the day before. Duncan, the birds reported, was receiving from his wizards ever-stronger omens of the importance of Ardneh to the West, and of Rolf’s mission for Ardneh. The Prince had dispatched a cavalry force to overtake Rolf and act as his escort to wherever Ardneh wanted him to go. But the Western cavalry detailed for the job had been intercepted by strong Eastern patrols, who were also converging upon the area, and forced to fight. John Ominor was now thought to have taken direct command of the main Eastern army in the field, though if so he was careful to stay hidden in his tent at night, out of sight of birds.

On another night, one of drizzling rain, Rolf and Catherine came to a stream wider than any they had met so far. Squinting into the murky dark, Rolf found he could not tell if the far bank was thirty meters distant or three hundred. At the moment no bird was with them to act as guide. The river flowed roughly to the north, but as soon as Rolf began to follow its bank in that direction a sudden hard feeling of wrongness, almost a sickness, came over him. When he stopped, the malaise subsided, only to return full force when he would have gone on again. Catherine felt nothing, but he could scarcely walk. Only when he reversed himself and followed the stream south did the sensation leave him. His puzzlement ended a hundred meters upstream, where what he first took to be a very odd-shaped stone in his path revealed itself on examination to be one end of a large metal object, almost completely buried.

Since Ardneh had apparently led them to it, he and Catherine set to work with knife and hatchet to dig the thing out of the hardened earth. They had not got far before they realized they were uncovering a small boat, made of Old World metal, uncor-rupted by whatever ages it had lain under the ground. In an hour or so they had the craft dug out; it proved to be practically undamaged and perfectly usable, of a handy size for two passengers. Oars or paddles there were none, but a little groping in the dark turned up a couple of branches suitable for poles if the water were not too deep. Rolf took it for granted that his proper course was still to the north, downstream. They loaded their little gear into the boat and put out into the river, finding it fairly swift and shallow. Before dawn they had made, while resting their feet, several more kilometers toward their still unknown goal.

That day they spent mostly in the boat, tied up to the shore under a sheltering overhang of bushes. For the first time in days Rolf spotted a reptile; but the enemy was cruising deep in the remote southern sky, and there was no reason to think it had seen them. Toward evening Rolf took a couple of fish with a whittled spear, and at sunset Catherine cooked them over a small fire. The food in their packs was beginning to run low.

That night, drifting north again over moonlit water, Rolf felt the conviction begin to grow in him that he was nearing the end of his journey.

The river wound its way north among the grassy hills of a land that seemed utterly empty of intelligent life. Near the end of their second night on the water they drifted past the mouth of a tributary creek, and Rolf obeying a sudden powerful impulse turned the boat into it. Poling the boat upstream was difficult, and the creek soon became so shallow that the boat scraped bottom frequently. Rolf and Catherine emptied it of their belongings and let it drift free, back to the larger stream that would carry it away from their path.

By now it was light enough for reptiles to be out, but Rolf decided to push on. Brush growing along the watercourse offered some concealment, and he had the sense that some conclusion was imminent, the feeling that it would not greatly matter if some reptile saw them now. Suspiciously he tried to analyze this feeling, and decided that it came from Ardneh and was to be trusted.

The water offered a path in which they would leave no trail. They waded on up the stream, which was only four or five meters wide here and not much more than ankle-deep.

“Why should the water be so cold?” Catherine asked him. Rolf frowned, realizing that she was right; the land was deep in summer, and such a little stream did not have depths to hold a chill. Unless it was the outflow of some deep lake…

A final meandering of the stream between its gentle banks brought them round a little hill, and he understood. The creek vanished unexpectedly into a hillside hole, a tunnel-mouth with a ledge at one side just above the water level.

He stood with Catherine before the tunnel-mouth for a little time, and then said: “This is where we are to go.”He felt her shiver beside him; chill air emerging from some underground depth, flowed almost imperceptibly around them, and their breaths steamed despite the growing radiance of the rising sun. “Come,” he said, and loosened his sword in its scabbard and moved forward. Here the water narrowed and deepened quickly and he climbed out of it to take the dry ledge that emerged from the hillside beside the stream.

Clay and dank limestone folded them about, and as they proceeded the tunnel gradually grew darker. It was far too regular to be natural, and marks showed of the hand tools that had shaped its surface.

“A mine,” said Catherine. “I have never been in one before.”

“Nor I. But you are right, it must be a mine.” Perhaps, Rolf thought, diggers after some useful metal had by accident run into an underground vein of water, and had dug this channel for it to keep their works from being flooded. That must have been long ago, for the creek bed outside looked as old as any other on the prairie.

The passage curved, but not into the blinding darkness that Rolf had expected. Ahead, it was joined by a vertical shaft, letting in the light of day from what must be a hilltop some meters overhead. Looking up through the rough shaft when he reached it, Rolf beheld a small circle of blue sky, fringed with stirring grass.

“Look,” urged Catherine, pointing downward. Half-embedded in the undisturbed clay beneath theirfeet were rusted lumps of metal that must once have been tools.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred