Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Elslood and Zarf took turns standing on the rim of the pit, three meters deep, at whose bottom the old man had been chained. They had with them talismans of their choice, and had drawn signs on floor and wall. They of course could gesture freely – though on the level of physical action the struggle was very quiet, as was to be. expected when it involved wizards of this rank.

While one of Ekuman’s magicians took his turn at maintaining the pressure, the other stood back before the Satrap’s elevated chair, conferring with him. They were all sure that the old man was a leader, perhaps the very chief, of those who called themselves the Free Folk. These were bands of the native populace, reinforced by some stiff-necked refugees from other lands, who hid themselves in hills and coastal swamps and carried on an unremitting guerrilla warfare against Ekuman.

It was only through a stroke of fortune that a routine search operation in the swamps had netted the old man. Zarf and a troop of forty soldiers had come upon him sleeping in a hut. Ekuman was beginning to believe that if the old man had chanced to be awake, they might not have taken him at all. Even with the prisoner at his present disadvantage, Elslood and Zarf together had not even managed to learn his name.

Down in the pit the guttering torchlight flashed with unusual brightness from chains that were of no ordinary metal. Blood puddled darkly at the old man’s feet, but not a drop of it was his. Lifeless before him one of Ekuman’s dungeon-wardens lay. This man had approached the chained wizard incautiously, to be surprised when his own torture-knife whipped itself out of its sheath to fly up and bury its dull blade to the hilt in its owner’s throat. After that, Ekuman had ordered all his human servitors save the two wizards from the chamber.

Later, when the prisoner had begun to display small but unmistakeable signs of weakening, Ekuman considered having the wardens in again, to try what little knives and flames might do. But the wizards advised against it, pleading that the best chance for a cruel prolongation of agony, for extracting useful information from the victim, lay in finishing by the powers of magic alone the process they had begun. Their pride was stung.

The Satrap thought about it, and let his wizards have their way, while he sat attentively through the long hours of the test. He had a high wall of a forehead, and a full, darkish beard. He wore a simple robe of black and bronze; his black boots shifted now and then upon the stone floor.

Only when the night outside was drawing to its end -though day and night in here were all the same -did the old man break silence at last. He spoke to Ekuman, and the words evidently formed no spell, for they came clearly enough through the guarded air above the torture-pit. When toward the end of the speech the victim’s breath began to fail, Ekuman stood up from his chair and leaned forward to hear better. On the Satrap’s face at that moment was a look of politeness, as of one simply showing courtesy to an elder.

“Hear me, Ekuman!”

The toad-familiar crouched lower, becoming utterly motionless, at the sound of those first words.

“Hear me, for I am Ardneh! Ardneh, who rides the Elephant, who wields the lightning, who rends fortifications as the rushing passage of time consumes cheap cloth. You slay me in this avatar, but I live on in other human beings. I am Ardneh, and in the end I will slay thee, and thou wilt not live on.”

Given the circumstances, Ekuman knew no alarm at being threatened. The word “Elephant,” though, caught his attention sharply. He glanced quickly at his wizards when it was uttered. Zarf’s and Elslood’s eyes fell before his, and he returned his full attention to the prisoner.

Pain showed now in the prisoner’s face, and sounded in his voice. Defenses crumbling, powers failing, he was quickly becoming no more than an old man, no more than another victim about to die. He labored on, with croaking speech.

“Hear me, Ekuman. Neither by day nor by night will I slay thee. Neither with the blade nor with the bow. Neither with the edge of the hand…nor with the fist. Neither with the wet… nor with the dry…”

Ekuman strained to hear more, but the old lips had ceased to move. Now only the flicker of torchlight gave the illusion of life to the victim’s face, as it did to the face of the dead torturer at his feet.

The ringing pressure of invisible forces faded quickly from the dank air. As Ekuman straightened, sighing, and turned from the pit, he could not resist a quick glance upward to make sure that the vaulting had settled back where it belonged.

Zarf, slightly the junior of the two wizards, had gone to open a door and call the wardens in to see to the disposal of the corpses. As the magician turned back from this errand, Ekuman demanded: “You will examine the old one’s body, with special care?”

“Yes, Lord.” Zarf did not sound optimistic about the results to be expected from such an autopsy. His toad-familiar, however, was now grown lively again, and ready to begin the job. It burbled shrilly as it hopped into the pit and began its usual routine of pranks with the two bodies.

Ekuman stretched, wearily, and began to ascend the worn stone stair. Something had been accomplished, one of the rebel chieftains killed. But that was not enough. The information Ekuman required had not been gained.

Halfway up the first curved flight of stairs he stopped, turned back his head, and asked: “What make you of that speech the ancient blessed me with?”

Elslood, three steps behind, nodded his fine gray head, knit his well-creased brow, and pursed his dry lips thoughtfully; but at the moment Elslood could find nothing to say.

Shrugging, the Satrap went on up. It needed a hundred and more stone steps to raise him from the dungeon to gray morning air in a closed courtyard, from courtyard to keep, and from keep to the tower where his own quarters were. At several points Ekuman acknowledged, without pausing, the salutes of bronze-helmed soldiers standing guard.

Once above ground, the stairs curved through the Castle’s massive, newly strengthened walls. The bulky keep was three tall stories high, and the tower rose two levels more above its roof. Most of the tower’s lower level was taken up by a single large room, the Presence Chamber, wherein Ekuman generally conducted his affairs of state. At one side of this large round chamber space had been given to the wizards, covered alcoves in which they might keep their implements, benches and tables where they might do their work under their Lord’s most watchful eye.

It was straight to this side of the Presence Chamber that Elslood went as soon as he and Ekuman had ascended to the tower. Around him here he had all the sorcerer’s impedimenta: masks, and talismans, and charms not easily nameable, all most curiously wrought, piled on stands and tables and depending from the wall. On a stand a single thick brown candle burned, pale of flame now in the cool morning light that filtered through the high narrow windows.

Pausing first to mutter a secret precautionary word, Elslood put out a hand to set aside the arras which concealed an alcove. Within this space the Satrap allowed him to keep to himself certain private volumes and devices. The drapery pulled back revealed an enormous black guardian-spider, temporarily immobilized by the secret word, crouched on a high shelf. The tall wizard reached his long arm past the spider to withdraw a dusty volume.

When it was brought into the light Ekuman saw that it was an Old World book, of marvelous paper and binding that had already outlasted more than one generation of parchment copies. Technology, thought the Satrap, and despite himself he shivered slightly, inwardly, watching the fair white pages turned so familiarly by Elslood’s searching fingers. It was not easy for one belonging to a world that thought itself sane and modern and stable to accept the reality of such things. Not even for Ekuman, who had seen and handled the evidences of technology more frequently than most. This book was not the only Old World remnant preserved within his Castle’s walls.

And somewhere’outside his walls, waiting to be found -the Elephant. Ekuman rubbed his palms together in impatience.

Having taken his book to the window for the light, Elslood had evidently located in it the passage he sought. He was reading silently now, nodding to himself like a man confirming an opinion.

At last he cleared his throat and spoke. “It was a quotation, Lord Ekuman, nearly word for word. From this-which is either a fable or a history of the Old World, I know not which. I will translate.” Elslood put back his wizard’s hood from his bush of silvery hair, cleared his throat again, and read out in a firm voice:

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