Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Having got down, Thomas leaned as if for needed support against the face of the rock he had just quitted. Then he wiped at his face with his sleeve and said, “I didn’t try it. The only way is with the birds.”

Strijeef hooted, “Tooo heavy.” Feathertip made a nodding motion that she must have adopted from humans.

“Then I’ll go.” Rolf looked at the birds, telling himself how strong they were, especially now when they had just had a good day’s rest. But he could not keep his eye from moving beyond them to mark how the sharp rocks stood in the bottom of the crevice. “That’s what I came along for.”

“Yes.” Thomas now sounded stubbornly angry. Rolf found himself half-wishing that the man might change his mind and, after all, attempt the leap himself-and make it, of course. But Thomas did not change his mind.

Rolf divested himself of his pack, and his extra ropes. Such things could be lifted easily to him later, if he -after he had reached the cave. He kept the short length of rope for the birds to grip and swing him by.

“Good luck,” said Thomas.

Rolf nodded. And then he was climbing the long rope, hauling with his hands and walking with his feet against the rock. He remembered you were not supposed to look down from a high place, so he did not.

And then before he had any time to think about what came next, he had reached the pinnacle. There was just room for him to crouch on the peak of the tall rock. The world looked unreal from here-the stars above, the sparks of torches on the distant Castle. The moon, huge and nearly full, was just starting up across the desert.

The birds were hovering at Rolf’s sides. He handed each of them an end of the short rope looped under his arms. His eyes were searching downward among the deceptive shadows on the cliff-face opposite. “I don’t see the cave. Where is it?”

“Hoo. Stand up.”

He stood, holding out his arms for balance. With gentle pulls at the rope the birds turned him, facing him in the right direction. They had wound the rope-ends tight in all their talons.

“I still don’t see it.”

“We will bring you to it. Jump high, jump far, and then grab rock when you can.”

He remembered when he was a child, jumping on a dare from a tree tall enough to offer a frightening drop. Take no time to think, and jump straight out, then you could do it… delay, and you might never go… and after the bold jump had come the hard triumphant landing… don’t look down.

“This way?”

“This way.” Their wingtips multiplied soft blessings near his head. “Now bend and jump!”

Giving himself to the birds, he leaped, fear adding spring to his legs. The lifting power that he could feel on the ropes was heartening -for a moment. Then he was falling. It was not the sheer empty dropping from the tree, but neither was it flying, or being held. Rolf’s arms turned panicky and thrashed ahead of him for something to grip. Impossible for human eyes to judge a distance here at night. The enormous wings worked on above him; their wind and that of his falling whirled against his face, while the horizontal momentum of his leap still carried him toward the wall of stone where the cave must be. That wall was moving upward frighteningly as his fingers scraped it. It bulged toward him, and his fingers were free in the air of a sudden aperture -and then Rolf jolted to a halt, arms thrusting into the cave over its lip which struck him in the chest. His knees banged painfully into the wall below. He clung there seemingly without a grip, held by his extended arms’ friction on smooth rock. The supporting pull on the ropes ceased while the birds walked over him and into the cave. Then they pulled again, from in front. With beak and talon they helped him drag his heaviness up and into the safe hole.

Once he had solidity under him he sat without moving, trying to get his hands to loosen their compulsive gripping of whatever came in reach. To the panting, quivering birds he said, “Tell -tell Thomas I made it.”

“He has seen youuu did not fall. Hoo. He knows you made it.” But after only a moment’s rest the birds took to the air and left him. They would be back very soon with his tools and supplies. Rolf swore that by then he would be able to let go the rock and do something useful.

It was a mighty good thing that Thomas had had the guts not to attempt the jump. His weighty muscles and his big bones would have pulled him down for sure, down to be broken on the rocks… but there was no point in such thoughts now. Rolf forced himself to relax.

Strijeef was back even before Rolf had expected him, dropping a rope-tied pack hastily at Rolf’s feet.

“Rooolf, big patrol from the Castle is coming on the ground. Thomas will run away, so if he is caught it will not be here. We Silent People must help him, we will come back when we can. Soldiers cannot climb here. Thomas says find out what you can.”

“Yes,” Rolf stammered after a moment. “All right. Tell him don’t worry. I’ll find out.” There seemed to be nothing more that needed saying.

The bird waited just a moment longer, gazing at Rolf with its wide wise-seeming eyes, swollen drops of ghostly light here in the dim cave. “Good luck,” it said, and brushed him with a wingtip.

“You too.”

When Strijeef had vanished, Rolf sat in silence, listening. After what seemed a long time he heard hooves passing somewhere below, making muffled sounds in sand and scraping very faintly over rock. For a while the movements seemed to slow down, to pause; then they proceeded at a faster rate that soon took them altogether out of earshot.

Straining to hear more, he told himself that Thomas certainly could not have been taken without a struggle and outcry. The birds would be eyes for Thomas. He must certainly have got away.

Time passed, bringing no further sounds. Rolf undid the rope from around the pack, and found food and water, more rope, flint and steel, small waxy torches, and a small chisel wrapped against clinking. With this last tool he was to carve in the rock some sort of notch in which a climbing rope could be anchored. The madness of birds and jumping would not have to be repeated.

He thought it over. The soldiers who had passed below were evidently gone now, either back to the Castle or in pursuit of Thomas, or simply continuing theirpatrol. They would not have left only one or two men here, not at night, and if they had left more than that he should be able to hear something from them. But they might well send men here in the morning. And in the morning the reptiles would be out. All in all, it seemed that now was the best time for stonecutting.

To muffle the sounds he emptied the pack and set the chisel under it. Then he chose a rock for his mallet and got to work, pausing after every tap to listen. The rope he meant to anchor here was already fastened to the middle of a short stout stick, and he needed only to reshape a wrinkle in the floor a bit to have a place where this anchor could be solidly fixed.

So his noisemaking was soon over. He repacked his gear and sat listening for another while. Once he thought the wind brought him some distant cry, whether animal or human he could not say. He shivered slightly. He felt wide awake. Should he start now on his exploration of the inner cave?

He could make a tentative beginning anyway. He crawled away from the cave mouth, going into utter darkness, groping before him with his hands. He had gone only a few meters when his foremost hand came down on nothingness. He stretched himself out on the brink of a vertical shaft and reached forward as well as he could, but could not touch the other side.

He went back to his pack and got out one of his torches. These were stiff-stemmed wax-rushes from the swamp, dried and dipped in animal fat, then cast by Loford under some kind of fire-spell that was meant to make them burn smokelessly and bright. But at last Rolf decided not to light the torch, to put off further exploration until morning. Daylight would doubtless filter even into the lower cave, so he might climb down without having to hold a torch. And besides, he kept expecting one of the birds to come back at any moment, bringing him word of what had happened to Thomas. And besides that -he was reluctant to go down to face the Elephant alone at midnight.

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