Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

After watching Wood’s violent departure, Abner started to mouth an informal curse, thought better of it (Wood would never be so foolish as to try to kick Abner in the shins), and instead walked a quick tour of inspection around the perimeter of his little camp. Satisfied that his sentries were properly alert, his reptiles well guarded by burning torches, and that no other business needed his attention at the moment, he went back to his tent.

She had returned to the couch. Amid disordered draperies she stretched out in a pose half sleepy and half sensual, like some fine catlike beast. Her eyes were nearly closed, but there was a tremor of candlelight along the length of their golden lashes, and Abner knew she was looking at him, as he brought down his palm to snuff the candle out.

Now for a little while the Constable forgot the world outside his tent. Soon, however, there came some sounds of movement at its door, hesitant and tentative sounds, but threatening unwelcome interruption. He could picture the Nameless One there, or some of his officers shifting their feet, listening to ascertain if anything urgent was going on inside. They were bearing news but were uncertain of its importance. They thought the Constable should be told, but were afraid of his anger if they bothered him at the wrong time for something that turned out to be trivial. Would they go away? No, at any moment now they would work up the nerve to stop their exchange of silent gestures with the sentry and call out to be admitted.

He got up and without bothering to dress went to the door, and in displeased tones demanded: “What is it, what do you want?”

The darkness was greater in the tent than just outside, and even as Abner spoke he saw there was no sentry, only a figure taller than the Nameless One or any of his officers, tall as Abner himself. Abner was alerted before his answer came, was already moving back to where his sword hung in its scabbard on the tent’s central pole.

“My wife,” the tall stranger said, matter-of-factly, and drove in a sword-thrust that no man could have seen coming, much less avoided, in that poor light. But neither could the stranger see Abner well, and the blade did no more than slice tent-cloth and splinter innocent wood.

Abner had his own sword in his hand by now, and his lungs were filling for the bellow that would rouse the camp, when other screams shattered the night outside. “Rally to me!” roared out the Constable, and cut at the dim figure of his adversary, missing as his attacker had.

Now the man was inside the tent, and suddenly the darkness was no longer deep. Some neighboring tent had burst up into flames, almost explosively, and sent a tawny flaring light into the Constable’s. The noise outside had mounted up as well, sounds not only of fighting but of panic, and at the moment that augured ill for the Eastern cause. Abner’s place was outside, but his way was barred. His second thrust at his foe was parried with impressive speed and strength; the man blocking the doorway was certainly not going to be readily brushed aside. The enemy cut savagely back at Abner’s legs, a blow that might have taken one off clean if it had landed; Abner dismissed a half-formed idea of turning and cutting his way out through the tent wall, to reach and lead his men. The first moment he turned his back upon this enemy would be the last he lived.

“Chairmian,” Abner called softly, in a moment’s lull after the next violent passage of arms. The next words he meant to say were strike at him from behind, but before he could utter them, something made him aware of the treacherous blow coming at the rear of his own skull, something hard and heavy swung by thin girlish arms. Abner started to turn and block the blow, realized that the sword would get him if he did, and tried to throw himself on the floor and roll from between his enemies, knowing even as he did so that he was too late. And he wondered, even as the sword came butchering between his ribs, how he had ever thought that the East, whose essence was treachery, could ever stand.

Speeding at treetop level to the north, Wood dreamed briefly of glory. If he could return to the Emperor with the jewel in his possession and the crushing of Ardneh to his personal credit, certain key members of the Emperor’s council might be persuaded that Wood would be a more effective Emperor than Ominor…

The taste of that thought was delightful, but it was a sweetness forbidden until the coming battle with Ardneh had been won.

It was an easy matter for Wood to cast his vision ahead to where the two fugitives rested. They were in some kind of cave, and the protection of Ardneh could be sensed around them. Wood could see how to reach them. It turned out, however, that reaching them was another matter. No sooner had he turned his mount directly toward the fugitives than a wind sprang up in his face. The wind quickly rose to a shrieking intensity, and Wood realized at once that its energies were more than strictly physical. It buffeted the griffin-demon and tried to turn him back. Wood dug in his heels. His mount snorted flame and continued to make headway. Then came a gust of superb violence. The demon-steed was halted in his airborne gallop, shot flying upward like a windborne leaf, sent skidding and pawing along a scudding firmament of clouds. The psychic energies that were the stuff of wizardry came forth from Ardneh’s stronghold in a torrent to match that of the driving air.

Even under the spur of Wood’s threats and incantations, his steed could make no headway, and soon he was forced to let it turn and ride before the blast. Most onlookers would have thought his situation precarious indeed, but Wood was not greatly perturbed. He had expected more subtlety on Ardneh’s part than this. The wind was driving him back momentarily, but it should not be too difficult to cope with.

Muttering words that seemed to be torn uncompleted from his lips by the twisting wind, Wood called powers to his aid. From odd places on the earth and under it he called up a motley horde of demon auxiliaries, the strongest force he could assemble in one time and place at a few moments’ notice. Ardneh must fall before this group should he dare to try to stand and fight them. If Ardneh would not fight he must retreat, and yield the two he was protecting.

The wind had slowly died as Wood had ceased to challenge it. Now, when his ill-favored troop of demons was fully assembled, grimacing and cackling like gigantic reptiles as they circled Wood on various shapes of wings amid the flying murk, he reined his mount in a wide circle and once more charged into the north.

The shell of demonic forces now surrounding Wood and his mount kept out the wind at first, when Ardneh tried to force them back again. Like some Old World missile the knot of Eastern power that Wood had formed around himself pushed its way through the blast. But the wind now rose to a new height of violence, and black clouds hurtling through it struck like fists upon the demons’ shell. And now from Ardneh’s striking fists there lanced out bolts of lightning. Like the wind, the li’ghtning was deeply charged with energies beyond the physical range, and each bolt was well aimed. Some flew at the demons surrounding Wood, and some were meant for him. His utmost mental agility was needed to detect the bolts that were to be aimed at him while they were still in the process of formation, and to defuse them, drain their power before they flew, when they would be too fast for any mortal man to stop.

Some of Wood’s host of conscripted warriors were fast enough to parry lightning directed at themselves. Nor could they be slain by it, for all their lives were safely hidden elsewhere. But Ardneh’s hail of darts came thick and fast upon them now, painful, damaging, red-hot, impossible to stand against.

The demons’ shell of force was pierced and broken, and once more Wood’s powerful mount was gripped by Ardneh’s wind-blast and hurled back. The griffin was flung twenty kilometers downwind before the hurricane abated enough for Wood to once more summon his demonic outriders around him. Whipped and half-stunned they came, moun-tainously cringing, shrinking their physical volumes as much as they could in order to make less conspicuous targets for his expected wrath. With words of terrible power Wood lashed them forward, northward, once again. This time he himself remained riding his griffin in a slow circle in this area of greater safety; trying to think, trying to probe ahead and understand.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred