He sat down near the cave mouth and, despite his situation, easily fell asleep. Twice he awakened with a start from dreams of falling, to find himself clutching at the rock. And each time he woke he worried a little more because the birds had not yet come back. Surely Thomas must have got away by now, or been caught? And had the birds been shot down too, by luck and by torchlight?
Rolf passed the time dozing and waking, until a more violent start after a period of deeper sleep roused him to the awareness that daylight was at hand. At least now he could feel certain that the birds would not come, not until another evening had arrived.
He had cut his socket into the rock so that it would hold the anchor stick firmly against a pull from either direction. He set the stick in place now, and from it hung his longest rope into the inner shaft. With full daylight he started the descent, pack strapped firmly on his back.
The chimney at its top was perhaps three meters wide; it narrowed irregularly as he went lower. It had the look of a natural fault, some splitting of the hill that perhaps had happened at the same time as the dumping and scattering of the rock-jumble outside.
As Rolf moved further down the daylight lessened, but still for the first twenty meters he did not need a torch. Then, at what he thought was approximately the level of the ground outside, the chimney ended in a hole, through which the rope went vanishing into blackness. Supporting himself on feet braced on opposite sides of the diminished shaft, Rolf freed his hands and struck fire to a rushlight. It burned cleanly. He thought the flame and trace of smoke showed a gentle upward movement of the air around him.
Rolf followed his rope, gripping it between his sandaled feet, keeping one hand free to hold the torch. He was in a huge wide hollow place. After descending only a few meters more, he could set his feet on a floor of smooth and level stone.
The rays of his rushlight fell across the cave, upon a closed pair of enormous doors. Before him stood a motionless rounded shape, twice taller than a man and perhaps a thousand times as bulky.
Rolf knew that he had found the Elephant.
Thomas could see nothing of Rolfs bird-supported leap across the chasm, and could hear only the faint scrambling noise of his arrival at the cave. But that, at the moment, was quite enough. Thomas allowed himself a single sigh of relief.
It took the birds only a few more moments to put an end to his relief, by descending with the news that a mounted patrol was moving in his direction from the Castle, was in fact already crossing the highway at the bottom of the pass.
That meant they were not much over two hundred meters away, and Thomas got moving even before he spoke. “If they catch me here they’ll keep poking around in these rocks. I’ll head for the western slope. Tell Rolf to find out what he can in the cave. And make sure no ropes are hanging out in sight.”
He was just working his way out of the rocks on the western side, thinking to get back to the swamps if he could, and communicate with Rolf for a day or two by bird, when Strijeef came spinning above him again, with word that more men were approaching from the west, coming uphill from the riverbank. “You must go east, Thomas. We will help.”
He hated to leave Rolf, but the youngster in the cave would just have to depend on his own brains and nerve. Thomas got out of the rocks at last on the eastern side, and started moving furtively down the first open slope of the vast desert. He had a water bottle with him, and could lie low in the wasteland for a day. When night fell again he could work north and get back across the mountains somewhere; the Broken Mountains were nowhere high or wide enough to keep an agile man on foot from finding his way through.
He cursed the brightness of the moon as he angled down the long open slope, heading away from pass and Castle. After going something over a hundred meters he paused and listened. He thought he could hear the muffled sounds of soldiers in considerable numbers moving in the area he had just left. He would have given much to know whether it was just a routine patrol, or whether they had seen or suspected something. Sarah was in the Castle. If the enemy had the least reason to connect her with the Free Folk, she might easily have been forced by now to tell everything she knew. It was Thomas’s own fault, doubtless, that she knew so much. He supposed that he and the other leaders would have to be more secretive in their planning, hide themselves from their own people half the time, keep the rank and file from knowing anything beyond what they were absolutely required to know. There had to be ways to organize a rebellion properly. To install a rigid command structure and iron discipline. Such things were probably vital and would have to be used-if Ekuman let the Free Folk survive long enough to learn them.
If he meant to survive he had better get on with his retreat. He had gone only a little -way further when, looking back, he saw the enemy begin to come out of the rocks, tall wraith-like shapes on riding-beasts emerging in the moonlight. Thomas crouched down again and kept on moving slowly away. The enemy troop fanned out as they left the rocks, riding slowly in his general direction. Obviously they hadn’t seen him yet, but neither were they ready to go home for the night.
Their apparently random choice of a direction to search further was uncomfortably accurate. With an underhand fling Thomas pitched a pebble way out to the southeast, at right angles to the line of his retreat. They heard it, all right; he saw some of them stop at the sound. They would think it was probably an animal, but would be suspicious. Now their whole rank of twenty men or thereabouts came to a halt. Thomas continued to pace softly and steadily away from them. When they got underway again they were headed more to the east.
He might have lain still now and let them pass him at a little distance, but there was always the chance that they might turn again, and he didn’t want them pinning him against the mountain. So he kept on retreating along his original line, getting a little farther out into the desert and breathing a little easier. He was just congratulating himself that the pebble-tossing had been exactly the right move, when one of the birds came drifting swiftly over his head, hooting to him in the lowest of warning notes. Thomas turned, and what he saw in the moonlight froze him in midstride. He felt himself suddenly huge and nakedly exposed. The long open slope that a moment before had been so free and sheltering in its distance was now a barren trap.
A vast fan-formation of a hundred risers or more was coming down on him from the north. Their line extended from the side of the mountain, sheer and unclimbable just here, out into the desert farther than a man could see at night from where Thomas stood. It was now all too plain to him that the smaller force which had chased him out of the rocks was intended only to drive the game into the net. They might be only engaged in training exercises, but the trap was very real.
He was one man, and unmounted; they could scarcely have seen him yet. Both birds came over Thomas’s head for a moment, but they only turned together there in silence and rose again. There was nothing that needed to be said; they would do what they could, he knew, to help him get away.
The trap looked very tight. He had stopped moving now because there was no place to go. If he was taken alive… he knew too much to risk that. He drew a long knife, his only weapon, from his belt. It would be utterly foolish to try to dash through the enemy line. As the noose drew tighter he huddled down, making himself as small as possible, in the moon-shadow of a tiny bush. With one hand he scraped up sand, trying to cover his legs sticking out of the shadow. It was not going to be enough, and yet there was nothing better he could do. Unless the birds could create some distraction.
The ghostly-looking line of troopers came on at a walk that looked unhurried but still covered ground. At the point of their line nearest Thomas, they were so close together that a bush-bounder could not have crept unseen between them. The cursed moon seemed growing brighter by the moment. Surely they must all see him now, they were only playing with him. With only a knife he might not even be able to kill one of them. He ceased trying to cover his legs, and held his breath and waited. The line was almost upon him.
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