Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Carefully, with the beginning of skill, he eased his great mount forward and backward. There did not seem to be room for a full turn, but he started a turn to the left and stopped and came back and began one to the right. At last he brought Elephant back to somewhere near his original position, standing still and quietly vibrating.

He dared then to let go of the controls, to wipe sweat from his face. He nodded to himself-quite enough for one day, yes. He had probably pushed his luck too far already. He had to find out now if he could put Elephant back to sleep.

Following what seemed to him the commonsense way to accomplish this, Rolf began to return the controls he had moved to their original positions, in the reverse order from that which he had used to wake the Elephant up. The system worked. The colored dots began reappearing on the panel, bottom to top. Soon the vision-ring dimmed, became opaque, rose up away from his head. And soon after that the roar of power mumbled down into silence, and all the characters and dots of CHECKLIST vanished behind dark glass once more.

Slowly, trembling with a tension he had not fully realized till now, Rolf climbed out of the hole in Elephant’s side. At first he left the door open, the light pouring out, while he stood on the stone floor marveling. Yes, it had all really happened. There was a fresh gouge-scar where Elephant’s shoulder had touched the surface of the enormous door; there were blackened spots on the door and on Elephant’s own surface, where the spattering of fire had fallen-maybe Elephant’s thunderbolts had grown feeble with the passing of the years. If so, it hardly seemed to matter. The size and power and metallic invulnerability of the Elephant seemed weapons great enough for any battle.

In a moment of imagination he saw himself battering down the Castle walls, rescuing Sarah. But he must rest, to be ready for the night, when surely birds would come, and possible human help as well.

He lighted a rush, then climbed the Elephant’s flank again to push shut the massive door, the door’s last closure shutting off the light inside. Going up the rope with the torch between his teeth, he could envision Loford and Thomas and the others refusing to believe all he had to tell.

The upper cave was bright with midday. He took off his pack, and ate and drank a little. There was only a mouthful of water remaining in the bottle. Probably the birds would bring him more, as soon as darkness fell. Yes, they would certainly be back tonight.

Excited as he was, Rolf soon fell asleep sitting on hard rock in the high cave, and awoke only as the first darkness was welling up outside. He shook the water in his bottle, and then drank down the last of it, for now the birds would surely be here soon.

Full night came, and he looked for them with every passing moment, and yet they did not come.

Sitting now in the cave’s very mouth, he could see some of the sky, and mark the stars. Let that bright blue one, he thought, pass from sight behind the pinnacle opposite, and time enough will have passed. I can be sure then that there’s something wrong. But they must be here before the heavens have turned the star that far. Surely any moment now…

The blue star rode its measured course and vanished. Half-relieved at being forced to action, Rolf stood up, biting his lip. All right, then. Something was very wrong. He was going to have to leave the cave and try to get back to the swamp and find his friends. Not only was he out of water, but the information he had gained was too important to be delayed.

Still nothing but the night-wind seemed to be stirring in the dark outside the cave. He anchored his climbing rope again, put on his pack, and then began to lower himself outside. He kept the free length of the rope coiled up, paying it out only as he went down. Looking down now at what the moonlight showed him of the rocks below, he thought he must have been a half-wit or a great hero, to have made that jump that got him into the cave.

His feet touched down at last. Now was the time for the enemy, who had been waiting patiently, to rush out… but no rush came. They had never known that he was here.

After several tries he managed to whip his rope free of its anchorage above; he reached as best he could, balanced on the tumbled stones, to catch the anchor-stick as it came falling. But he failed to catch it, so it made a soft clatter when it hit. But no one came, only the night breeze still whispering softly along the canyon.

He made a quick job of coiling the long rope into his pack. And then he set off for the swamps, working his way cautiously out of the canyon and the rocks to emerge on the western slope of the mountain’s foot with the river below him. He angled northward down this slope, heading away from pass and Castle. He had gone only about a hundred meters when the feel of sandy soil under his feet suggested that it might be a good idea for him to bury his pack with all its equipment. He could hardly keep quiet about where he had been if they caught him with all of that, and he would travel lighter and faster without it.

When he had covered up the pack he went on, getting down toward the east bank of the Dolles, still half-expecting to be greeted at any moment by the hooting of a bird.

He avoided the places where he and Thomas, on their way up to the pass, had seen soldiers. After a couple of kilometers he got down to the water’s edge. Here he knew the river was shallow clear across; he waded in, clothes and all.

He had hardly climbed out on the western bank before the Castle soldiers sprang out of hiding to seize him. He turned at once to flee, but something that felt incredibly hard and heavy struck him on the side of the head.

He was face down in the riverside mud. As if through a muffling fog he could hear the voices over him.

“That settled ‘im down good.” A brief laugh. “Did this one get t’ the barges? See if he’s got any loot on “im.”

Hands turned and shook and prodded him. “Naw, nothin’.”

“What’ll we do, hang ‘im in a tree? We haven’t hung a thief on this side of the river yet.”

“Um. No, they need workers, up at the Castle. This ‘un looks healthy enough to be some use. If you didn’t scramble his brains.”


The Two Stones

Thomas, still dazzled by a dance of luminous afterimages before his eyes, his ears ringing, raised his head and began to try to regather his wits. He was lying on the desert, where a moment ago he had fallen or had been flung. It was raining hard. He wiped a hand across his eyes, trying to see more clearly. A little distance away the farm-girl in the wide hat knelt, looking at him.

“You are not dead,” she was saying. “Oh, I’m glad. You’re not one of them, are you? Oh no, of course you’re not. I’m sorry.”

“Of course I’m not.” Let the young woman be dried out a little, he thought, and she would be quite good looking. He noticed that there was no wedding ring on her finger. “Why did you yell a warning? How did you know what was going to happen?”

The girl had turned away from him, and was looking around her now, as if for some lost object. “Since I did save your life, will you help me now, please? I’ve got to find it.”

“The thing that was in that case, hey?”

“Yes, where did it go?”

“If it was mine I’m not sure I’d ever want to see it again.”

“Oh, but I -must.” She stood up, peering this way and that.

“My name is Thomas.”

“Oh -I am Olanthe.”

“Of the Oasis? I see you wear one of their hats.”

“I…yes. Now will you help me find the Stone?”

She seemed to realize too late that the last word had let slip another bit of information.

“The Stone, hey?” An idea struck him. “The Oasis of the Two Stones; I suppose the name means something. Would this Stone you’re looking for be one of those? I’d just like to know what it was that nearly killed me.”

The rain was slowing down. Olanthe turned away from him, searching, walking a widening spiral over the sand.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred