Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

To the left of the Castle, Rolf could see part of the desert country that rolled down from the all-but-rainless inland slopes of the Broken Mountains, and stretched on for perhaps two hundred kilometers to the high and forbidding Black Mountains. The desert looked hot already, though the sun was scarcely risen.

“The leatherwings are up betimes,” said Thomas quietly, nodding straight ahead. The early sun was bright on the net-protected houses and perches clustered on the upper parts of the high Castle, showing a gray-green movement of reptile bodies under the nets. Ekuman’s flag of black and bronze had evidently flown all night from a pole on the flat roof of the keep. And there were other decorations dangling high on wall and parapet; the tiny whitish stick-figures that Rolf knew had once been people, good people, who had displeased the land’s new masters and had been lifted up there to be living toys and food for the leatherwings.

The only living men to be seen now on the high places were dots of black and bronze, the movements of their arms and legs barely distinguishable at this distance. They were about the morning routine of furling the protective nets from around the reptiles’ roosts. Now the gray-green dots came into plainer view, swelling and contracting. The reptiles would be stretching their wings. Cawing and whining drifted faintly across the pass. In another moment the first of them were airborne, making room for more and more to appear on the perches. Soon the air above the Castle grew cloudy with their circling swarm.

“And now we had better make sure to lie low,” said Thomas, casting a look around at their hiding place. To their rear, the narrow crevice in which they lay twisted back into the foot of the mountain, its sandy floor losing itself among huge tumbled boulders and splintered outcroppings of rock. A shoulder of the mountain had slumped and fallen here an age ago. Somewhere back in that jumble, this little crevice grown wider had high on one of its walls the hidden cave-entrance. Strijeef and Fea-thertip had taken shelter there for the day. Getting Rolf or Thomas somehow into the cave would have to wait for another night.

Directly above Thomas and Rolf, the rock-bulges of the canyon walls shut out the sky entirely. The reptile swarm centered above the Castle had now spread until its thinned edges reached this far and farther, but still there came no cawing of alarm from overhead, no gathering of faces at the Castle wall. Rolf found it moment by moment easier to believe that he and Thomas would not be seen today if they kept still.

Keeping still was not going to be hard. The folk in the swamp had given Rolf sandals, but still his feet were sore from the long, fast hike. And he was tired in every muscle.

Lying stretched out in the sand, nerves still sleep-lessly taut, he let his gaze wander eastward again. In the far distance the Black Mountains looked grayly insubstantial with the morning sunlight almost at their backs. Much nearer, but still well out over the badlands, clouds were forming a high knot that promised rain. Rolf knew that under those clouds the Oasis of the Two Stones must lie, though a low elevation of the land between kept him from seeing that round fertile patch. Years ago Rolf’s father had brought him here to the pass, to show him the Castle -then an innocent and wondrous ruin -and had also pointed out to him where the Oasis lay amid the desert, and had told him of the wonder of its rainfall.

Rolf suddenly realized that something strange was happening to the clouds. Instead of remaining gathered above the one always-favored spot they were moving now, coming roughly toward the pass.

This seemed to him so odd that he called it to Thomas’s attention. Thomas slid a few centimeters forward and peeked cautiously out of the canyon mouth to look for himself.

“Something must have gone awry with their magic out there,” he said shortly.

“I wonder what their magic is.”

Thomas shook his head. The distant knot of vapor had already darkened into a thunderstorm, and was chasing its shadow toward them across the desert, lighting itself from within by a sudden flicker of lightning.

“I suppose the invaders are holding the Oasis too,” Rolf said. He thought he could hear the thunder, tiny and distant.

Thomas nodded. “Quite a strong garrison, I understand.” He pulled himself back. “We’d better take turns on watch, and each get some sleep while we can.”

Rolf said he could not sleep yet, so Thomas agreed to let him take the first watch. Then Thomas opened his pack and took out a marvelous thing. It was an Old World device, he explained, that was supposed to have come from beyond the western sea. It had been cherished for generations in the family of a man who now had joined a band of Free Folk.

The device consisted of a pair of metal cylinders, each about the length of a man’s hand. The cylinders were clasped side by side with metal joints that fitted and worked with incredible smooth precision, as Rolf saw when Thomas let him take the device carefully into his hands. He had never before had the chance to handle anything of the Old World so freely, and he had never before seen such workmanship in metal.

Each end of each cylinder was glass, and looking through them made everything suddenly a dozen times closer. At first Rolf was less impressed by the function of the thing than by the form. But gradually Thomas made him understand that there was no magic involved here; Thomas said that Old World devices never depended upon it. Instead the illusion of closeness came somehow from what Thomas called pure technology; the thing was a tool, like a saw or a spade, but instead of working wood or soil it worked on light. It needed only whatever power eyes could give it, looking through its double tubes.

No magic needed, to move a man’s point of vision out from his body and bring it back again. It was an eerie thought. Technology was a word that Rolf had heard perhaps a dozen times in his life before today, and then always in some joking context; but now the truth of what it meant began to gradually impress itself upon him.

“How do you know there’s no magic in them?”

Thomas shrugged slightly. “No one can feel any. Wizards have tried.”

Rolf handled the eyeglasses with an eagerly growing fascination as he drew the Castle near him and pushed it away again. He searched for the thunderstorm, but it had dissipated already. He looked at Thomas’s face, a mountain-blur of nearness.

“Don’t look at the sun through those, your eyes will burn out.”

“I won’t.” Rolf already felt an affinity for technology deeper than any he had ever felt for the things of magic; he had known enough not to look at a sun made a dozen times more dazzling.

Something in the satisfaction of the glasses eased the tension that had so far kept him from feeling sleepy; he yawned and felt his eyelids drooping. Thomas announced that he himself had better take the first watch after all.

Rolf rolled against the rock wall of the canyon, put down his head and at once dropped off to sleep, to awaken with a violent start when his arm was touched. He had little sense of time having passed, but he did feel rested, and the sun was near the zenith.

Having the Old World glasses to use, Rolf found the time of the afternoon watch passing quickly. At the main gate of the Castle, there was a more or less continual coming and going, of both soldiers and civilians. A few wagonloads of provisions came jolting over the bridge that spanned the Dolles in the midst of what was now a half-deserted village at the foot of the Castle’s hill. Barrels and bales and sacks were carried up on slave-back to the Castle from the barges moored at the village landing-place. Only slaves labored now in what Rolf remembered as a free and thriving town. Dots of bronze and black stood guard with whips that became visible only through the glasses.

Rolf did not watch that for long. Each time a party of soldiers came down from the Castle, or passed below him in either direction through the pass, he watched them tensely, ready to rouse Thomas in an instant should any turn upslope toward these rocks.

Thomas had rolled under a bulge of rock as far as a man could get, and there he slept. Now and then he would utter a faint groan and make abortive motions with his powerful arms. Somehow it seemed wrong and discouraging to Rolf that a man healthy and strong, a successful leader, should have to put up with bad dreams.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred