Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Feet hobbled and hands bound painfully behind him, he was taken to a command post concealed in trees right by the riverbank. His head throbbing, he sat on the ground and tried to think of nothing. There were too many soldiers for him to have a hope of getting loose, and they seemed discouragingly capable as they went about their routines of duty.

At earliest daylight the watch was changed. The soldiers who had caught Rolf now tied a leading cord around his neck, freed his legs, and took him up the road to the Castle, tethered behind a riding-beast like some small animal being led to slaughter.

The journey was not long. The road followed the west bank of the Dolles for a couple of kilometers, joining on the way with other roads that converged toward the pass. Shortly the pass came in sight, with the village and its bridge in the foreground, and the Castle brooding above.

Crossing the bridge, Rolf raised his eyes to the northeast, looking at the high, distant rocks that only a day ago had hidden him in safety. Now he saw that which deepened his despair-reptiles were on those rocks, and in the air above them, thick as flies on dead meat. And, marching up that slope, like bronze-black ants, a company of soldiers.

The enemyhad found the cave, then. That must be it. Rolf brought his eyes back to the bridge under his feet, hardly aware any longer of his surroundings. He was lost, and all else too.

Once over the bridge, the soldiers began to relax their vigilance. In the nearly deserted village square they halted, straightening their uniforms, evidently getting in proper shape for appearance in the Castle.

Rolf stood staring dully at the rump of the riding-beast that he was tethered to, until a movement at the corner of his eye caused him to turn his aching head. The village inn, a two-story timber structure, was evidently still in business, for two men were standing on its porch.

His heart leaped when he recognized Mewick. There could be no mistake, the lean figure was the same, though liberal streaks of gray in the dark hair had added twenty years of age -added them credibly, when seen above the lined gravity of Mewick’s face. The short cloak and the magic peddler’s pack were gone. Mewick was wearing moderately rich clothing now, putting Rolf in mind of merchants he had seen now and then, who were said to be from far islands in the sea.

Rolf looked away, holding his face blank. Let him make one blunder now, and Mewick could be dragged away beside him, both to meet some grimmer fate than that of a mere thief. Desperately, Rolf tried to think of some way of passing on to Mewick his new knowledge of the Elephant.

The porch of the inn was not ten meters distant. He could hear Mewick talking with a rotund man, perhaps the innkeeper, about problems of trade and snipping, the prevalence of bandits. Mewick sounded gloomy as ever. Let him ask something about the soldiers swarming on yonder hill-let him ask something that I can answer yes or no, thought Rolf, and I will nod my head or shake it, enough for him to see.

But Mewick asked no such thing -dared not, or could not think of a useful question that could be made to sound innocent. Rolf could not either. Tonight when he was in the dungeon they would both think often questions Mewick might have asked. Or of some other way of passing information. But at least Rolf knew that Mewick must have seen him – that was something, that his fate was not entirely unknown to his friends. Staring straight ahead, Rolf made one nodding motion of his head.

The soldiers were ready now, and dragged him on again. Once out of the little village, the road ascended, worn deep here by the daily passage of an army. The walls and towers of the Castle swelled with nearness now. The main gate stood open, the portcullis looking more than ever like the teeth in some vast jaw.

In an inner courtyard, where the stables were, Rolf’s bonds were taken off, and he was given to guards who wore no bronze helmets and carried no swords, but had only keys and cudgels at their belts. These pushed him into a doorway at the base of the keep, and from thence led him downward over worn, damp stairs. Just underground, the passage became level, dark and narrow. It was lined with cells, separated by heavy grilles of iron. Some of these were crowded with wretched figures while others waited empty, doubtless for the return of slaves who labored somewhere up above. The smell was worse than that of any animal pen that Rolf had ever visited. Rolf was sent with an impersonal kick to join the apathetic bodies in one cell, and the door was made fast behind him.

The morning light that entered so poorly into those upper dungeons had little better success in penetrating the richly curtained windows of the upper tower. It was not the sun that awoke the Satrap Ekuman today, but voices, quietly excited, just outside his chamber door.

Blinking, he roused himself in his vast bed. When his concubine of the night, who was curled sleeping like some soft beast at her master’s feet, made a movement that impeded his stretching, he kicked at her irritably. Once on his feet, he wrapped his body in a fur gown, then spent a moment in setting aside the magical defense that guarded the door of his bedchamber from within, before he called out to know whose business brought them to him at this hour.

It was the Master of the Reptiles who was passed in by the guards. This Master was a small man, usually phlegmatic in his manner. But his face was now aglow with triumph, so that the sight of him made Ekuman’s hopes blaze up before the man had spoken.

“Sire, we have found the Elephant for you!” That said, the Master rushed quickly on with explanations, as Ekuman’s expression bade him do-how he had zealously investigated yesterday’s report of a strange rumbling noise, heard by reptiles, coming from under the ground on the north side of the pass. And then birds had attacked troopers, during last night’s maneuvers in that area –

“The Elephant, the Elephant! Have you news of it or not?”

“Yes, Lord!”

At break of dawn the Master had sent hordes of reptiles to those rocks, under orders to cover them centimeter by centimeter, crawling if need be, to find the cause of the strange noise. They had found, first, the entrance to a cave, holding signs that at least one human had recently been there, and birds as well –

Observing the countenance of his Lord, the Master of the Reptiles swallowed some words, hastily condensing his story further. One reptile at least had seen the Elephant in that cave -a thing of metal, huge as a house, with the familiar symbol painted on its flanks.

“Very good. You will be well rewarded, if all this proves to be the truth.” Ekuman tossed the man a jeweled ring, in token of more to come. Then the Satrap, half-dressed as he was, descended to the lower level of the tower. Here a doorway brought him out onto the flat roof of the keep, from whence a good view could be had of the country across the pass.

The Master of Reptiles, basking in his favor, hurried just behind. His other chief subordinates, he knew, would be gathering round him momentarily, as soon as they heard the tidings of the great discovery. And in fact Ekuman had no more than rested his hands on the northern battlement, when there came the sound of many climbing feet upon a nearby stair. Turning, he saw the Master of the Troops coming up, with his officers and aides behind him.

Frowning at the Master of the Troops, a tough graying soldier named Garl, Ekuman demanded, “Just what are all those men doing over there?”

Carl’s face, which had been set to join in his Lord’s triumph, quickly sobered. “Lord, we are… consolidating the position against possible enemy action. And I am waiting only for your word to send men into the cave itself.”

Ekuman nodded. “You do well to await my word before taking such a step.”

Zarf had come up just in time to hear the last exchange of speech. “Lord,” he volunteered, “it will be best if I am first into this cave.” Then he bowed slightly as the older wizard came puffing unimpressively up the stairs. “Or Master Elslood, of course. If he is not required to be busy elsewhere.”

Ekuman turned away from his wizards. Elslood and Zarf were well and firmly under his thumb, and through them, all the others here. Yet he had heard of other Satraps who doubtless had been as firmly seated and still had been overthrown by intrigues in their own households-Som the Dead never seemed to care, if the usurpers served him with equal or greater dedication.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred