Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“He is quite welcome,” said Rolf. Then in a bitter tone he added, “I had the chance to kill some of them and I failed.”

The man shrugged and said something encouraging. Introducing himself as Thomas, he began to question Rolf about the events of the last two days. Thomas was perhaps ten years Rolf’s senior, strongly built and serious of manner. He had greeted the other new arrivals as old friends, and had questioned them at once about the movements of the enemy.

While Rolf was giving Thomas and the others a description of his missing sister, the group walked from the landing-place to what was evidently the main camp, where a dozen large shelters had been built under concealing trees. Rolfs story was received with sympathy, but no surprise; most of his hearers could have matched it with something from their own lives. The description of Lisa would be circulated, but Thomas warned Rolf there was little reason to be hopeful.

The evening meal of the camp was just ready; there was no shortage of fish and succulent stew. A company that grew gradually to fifteen or twenty people was gathering about the cooking fire.

The food drew most of Rolf’s attention, but he heard the word being passed in from a lookout that another canoe was coming. It bore only a lone messenger, who was soon being entertained at fireside. He brought some apparently routine news, and after he had spoken in conference with Loford, Thomas, and several others, another messenger was dispatched. Obviously this camp was some center of command, in contact with other groups of Free Folk. But while the message brought by the man in the canoe was being discussed, Rolf sensed something strained in the decision-making process here. Many people seemed to be taking part in it, not all of them quite willingly. They spoke with slow hesi-tance, each weighing his neighbors’ reactions as he went on from word to word. No one seemed eager to push himself or his ideas forward.

“If only the Old One were here!” one man lamented, seemingly exasperated by the length of a debate which had sprung up, over whether or not a certain cache of weapons should be moved.

“Well, he’s not,” a woman answered. “And he’s not coming back.”

“He was Ardneh, if you ask me,” said the first speaker. “And now no one is.”

Rolf had not heard of Ardneh before. And so a little later, when Loford sat down beside him to eat, he asked the wizard what the man had meant.

Loford answered casually at first. “Oh, we’ve come to use the name as a symbol for our cause. For our hopes of freedom. We seem to be trying to build ourselves a god.”

A what? Rolf wondered silently.

Chewing slowly on a morsel of fish, Loford squinted into the firelight, which seemed now to brighten rapidly with the fading of the day. Now he spoke more intently.

“In a vision I myself have beheld Ardneh in this guise: the figure of a warrior, armed with the thunderbolt, mounted on the Elephant.”

Rolf was much impressed. “But Ardneh is real, then? A living being, some kind of demon or elemental?”

The movement of Loford’s massive shoulders might have meant that the question had no answer. “He was a god of the Old World, or so we think.”

Curiosity left Rolf no choice but to reveal the depth of his ignorance. “What is a god?”

“Oh,” said Loford, “we have no gods, these days.” He interested himself more in his food.

“But were gods like demons?” Rolf asked helplessly, when it seemed that no more information was forthcoming. Once he started trying to find out about something he hated to quit.

“They were more than that; but I am only a country wizard and I know little.” In the Big One’s voice there sounded a momentary weight of sadness.

And then Rolf forgot about probing such deep matters, for Sarah came to join the group about the fire, having just been relieved of sentry duty. Rolf talked with her while she ate her evening meal. Her boys’ clothes could not disguise the prettiness of her face nor the shapeliness of her tiny body, and he felt disinclined to seek out any other company.

She talked with him easily enough, heard his story with sympathy, listened carefully to a description of his sister-then she related almost casually how her family too had been destroyed by the men and creatures of the Castle.

Her mask of calm lifted when another messenger was reported arriving by dugout, and when this man came to the fire she listened with a bright spark of interest-which soon faded. The news had nothing to do with Nils.

The sun had now been down for some time, and Sarah grew steadily more attractive in the warm glow of firelight. But Rolfs meditations on this subject were interrupted by the arrival of yet another messenger.

This one came by air. Strijeef, who had awakened rapidly and begun to move about as the last light faded from the sky, was the first to see the approaching bird. But Strijeef had only just gotten into the air and uttered his first greeting hoot before the new arrival was down, stooping with startling speed through the leafy roof above the fires, then on the ground, shivering and gasping rapidly in what seemed near-exhaustion. People gathered around it quickly, shading its eyes from the firelight, offering it water and demanding to hear the news that inspired such effort.

The first words this bird uttered came out well mixed with gasping hoots and whistles, but they were loud and plain enough to be understood by even Rolf’s unpracticed ears: “I have-found the Elephant.”

The bird was a young female, whose name Rolf understood as Feathertip. Early last evening she had been prowling near the Castle. That place and its high reptile roosts were defended, by stretched cords and nets, from any bird’s attack, but there was always the chance just after sunset of intercepting some reptile tardily hurrying home.

Last night there had been several stragglers, but , Feathertip had been disappointed in her attempt to catch them; it had simply taken her too long to get near the Castle from her daytime hiding place in the forest. The latest of the leatherwings had got himself home safe in the darkness just ahead of her.

So it had occurred to her to try to find a place very near the Castle in which to hide during the daylight hours. With this in mind she had flown along the northern side of the pass upon whose southern edge the Castle perched. The pass interrupted the thin line of the Broken Mountains. On the northern side of the break the mountain ended in a jumble of crevices and narrow canyons which promised some concealment. In the moonlight, Feathertip flew there searching for some ledge or cranny so well hidden that the reptiles would not be likely to see it during their daylight patrols, so high and inaccessible that no patrol of soldiers would be able to get near.

The great birds’ eyes were at their best by moonglow and in the tricky shadows of the night. Still Feathertip had twice passed by the opening before she paused, on her third flight through a narrow canyon, to investigate what seemed no more than a dark spot on a sheltered face of rock.

The spot turned out to be a hole, the entrance of a cave. An opening not only concealed from any but the most careful of winged searches, but so narrow that Feathertip thought that if worst came to worst, she might even be able to defend it in the light. And so she determined to stay.

Seeking out the inner recesses of the cave, to find what other entrances there might be and also to escape as far as possible the pressure of the morning sun, the bird had made her great discovery. Through a narrow descending shaft -down which one of the heavy wingless people should be able to climb if he took care -Feathertip had reached a cave as smooth as the inside of an egg, and long and wide enough to hold a house. The bird knew the sign of the Elephant, and this sign was on each flank of the enormous-creature? -thing? Feathertip could not decide which word applied) which alone occupied the cave, and which in her opinion could hardly be anything but the Elephant itself.

Four-legged? No, it had seemed to have no legs at all. Had it a grasping nose, and teeth like swords? No -at least not quite. But never had the bird seen anything like that which waited unmoving in the buried cave.

By now Feathertip had regained her breath, and was plainly enjoying her telling of a story that made the heavy wingless people crowd around to question her so impatiently. She was established now with her back to a shaded fire, and for the most part the humans saw her as a dark soft outline, having huge eyes that now and then sparked faintly with the caught reflection of something luminescing out in the swamp.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred