Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

She stuck stubbornly to her conviction that the thing in the cave could be nothing less than the Elephant itself. No, it had not moved; but it did not seem dead or ruined. On what seemed to be its head it did have several projections, all of them looking stiff as claws. No, Feathertip had not touched the Elephant. But every part of it looked very hard, like something made of metal.

Sarah was explaining to Rolf that the birds always had difficulty in describing man-made things; some of them could not distinguish between an ax and a sword. The strength of their minds just did not lie in that direction.

The questioning of the bird had begun to trail off into repetition. The air of hesitancy, of unwillingness to take up the responsibility of leadership, still seemed to dominate the group.

“Well, someone must be sent to see what this thing is,” Thomas said, looking about him at the others. “One or more of us heavy wingless ones. And as soon as possible. That much is plain.”

A discussion began on which of the various bands of Free Folk scattered through the countryside was closest to the cave, and which would have the easiest and safest route to get there.

Thomas cut the discussion short. “We’re only about eighteen kilometers from the cave ourselves-I think it will be fastest after all if one or two of us go from here.”

Loford was sitting smiling in silent approval as Thomas began to lead. Thomas turned now to the bird and said, “Feathertip-think carefully now. Is there any possible way for a human being to climb to the entrance of this cave of yours?”

“Whoo. No. Unless they made a stairway in the rock.”

“How high a stairway would it have to be?”

“Eleven times as high as you.” On matters of height the birds were evidently very quick and accurate.

“We are none of us mountain climbers, and we are in a hurry.” Thomas began to pace nervously, then quickly stopped. “We do have ropes, of course. Is there some projection in this cave or about it, around which you could drop a loop of rope, to let us climb?”

There was no such projection inside the upper cave, Feathertip said after some thought. On the opposite side of the canyon was a pinnacle where she could hang a rope; but a human climbing there would still have to get across the canyon and in beneath an overhang.

“Could I jump this chasm? How wide is it?”

The distance of a good running broad jump, it seemed. And it would have to be accomplished from a standing start of precarious footing.

There was argument, and the rudiment of a plan emerged.

“Look, we know a bird can’t lift an adult human,” said Thomas. “But we’ve two birds here now, both big and strong of their kind.”

People interrupted with objections.

“Let me finish. They can’t lift a man cleanly, but couldn’t they help him jump? Swing him, delay his fall, as he jumps from atop this pinnacle of rock to get across the canyon?”

The birds both said they thought that something of the sort might just be possible. And no one was able to think of a better plan for getting a human quickly into the cave; of course the ground would have to be examined first. In any case no large party with ladders and other cumbersome equipment could be sent with any safety to work so near the Castle.

Thomas’s enthusiasm was building steadily. “It must be done somehow, and the birds’ help may make it possible. We’ll see what way looks best when we get there. And there’s no time to waste. If I leave here within the hour, I can be hidden among the rocks on the north side of the pass before dawn. Just lie low during the daylight hours, and then tomorrow night – ”

Loford asked him, “You?”

Thomas smiled wryly. “Well, you’ve been prodding me to assume some kind of leadership.”

“This is not a leader’s job. It’s one for a scout. Why you? You’re needed here to make decisions.”

Others jumped into the argument. It was soon more or less agreed that two people ought to go, but there was no agreement on who they should be. Every man and woman who was not slow with age, or recovering from a wound, volunteered. “Heights don’t scare me at all,” Rolf offered.

“Me neither!” Sarah wanted to go. She claimed that she was lighter than any of the others, certainly an advantage if it came to a matter of being partially supported by birds.

“Ah!” said Thomas to her, a spark of humor in his eye. “But what if Nils comes back and finds that you’ve gone off alone with me?”

That quieted Sarah-for a while-but Thomas found the others’ squabbling harder to put down. At last he had to nearly shout, “All right, all right! I know the land as well as anyone. I suppose I can decide as well as anyone what to do about the Elephant when I reach it. So I am going. Loford will be the leader here -so far as I have any authority to name one. Mewick-you must stay in the swamps for a while, to talk to others of our people as they come in, tell them about the situation in the north and elsewhere, so they’ll understand we cannot expect any help… now, let’s see. Will I be light enough to jump into this cave with a boost from two birds?”

He stretched out his arms. Strijeef and Feathertip took to the air and hovered about him, and each carefully clenched their feet around one of his wrists. Then their wings beat powerfully, the strokes becoming faintly audible, their breeze whipping up sparks and ashes from the remnants of a fire. But Thomas’s feet did not leave the ground. Only when he jumped up could the two birds hold him in the air, and then only for the barest moment.

“Try it with me!” Sarah now demanded. With great exertion the birds could lift Sarah just about a meter off the ground, and hold her there for a count of three. What jumping she could manage did not help very much.

She was elated, but Thomas kept shaking his head at her. “No, no. We may have to do some fighting, or – ”

“I can shoot a bow!”

He ignored her protests, and nodded toward Rolf. “Try him next, he seems about the lightest.”

The birds rested briefly, then gripped the ends of a piece of rope which Rolf had found and looped around his body under his arms. “At the cave I’ll need my hands free to cling and climb,” he explained. Then he leaped upward with all the spring in his legs, just as the two birds lifted mightily. He rose till his feet were higher than a tall man’s head, from which elevation it took him a count of five to fall to the ground against the birds’ continued pull.

“Well.” Thomas considered. “That would seem to be about the best that we can do.”

“I’m ready to hike,” Rolf told him. “I’ve rested most of the day. Just paddled in the dugout.”

Thomas, staring at him thoughtfully, cracked a faint smile. “You call that resting, hey?” He looked across the fire at Mewick.

Mewick said, “I think the young one has got all the madness out of his system.”

Thomas looked back at Rolf. “Is that true? If I take you, we may run into a fight but we’re not looking for one.”

“I understand that.” The madness for revenge was not gone, far from it. But it had grown into something cold and patient. Calculating.

Thomas stared at Rolf a moment longer; then he smiled. “Very good. Then let’s get started.”


The Cave

The earliest light of dawn found Rolf and Thomas lying side by side, facing south across the pass, in the mouth of a narrow crevice between towering rocks. The pass before them was not distinguished by any name; though it was the only clean break in the Broken Mountains for many kilometers both north and south. They were both worn with swamp-paddling and cross-country hiking through the night just past-with their furtive wading crossing of the river Dolles, and their last climb, racing against the coming of dawn, to their present position.

The spot they had reached was a commanding one. By moving a meter forward, out of the mouth of the tiny canyon, they might have seen to their right the Dolles winding like a lazy snake along the foot of the mountains from north to south. Beyond the river stretched Rolf’s home country of farmlands and lowlands and swamps. And in the distance, plainly visible, was the blue vagueness of the western sea.

Straight ahead of the tiny canyon’s mouth, the barren land fell downward for some two hundred meters in a gradually decreasing slope to where the east-west highway threaded the bottom of the pass. And south beyond the highway the land rose again in an equivalent slope, to a foothill of the southern mountain chain; and upon that foothill stood the gray and newly strengthened walls of the Castle.

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