“All right, kid, fall out.”
Saying nothing, Rolf got up and went with him. The man led him around a corner into a small closed yard. Along one wall stout butts of timber had been set firmly in the ground; they were much hacked and splintered.
The man held out one of the practice swords to Rolf, hilt first. “Take this arid come at me. Let’s see what you can do.” When Rolf did not instantly obey him his voice shifted effortlessly into a heavy, threatening tone. “Come on! Or maybe you’d rather go up on the roof instead, and fight the leather-wings? Up there you won’t get no sword to use – you’ll be strung up by your fingers.”
Slowly Rolf took the proffered weapon. Evidently seeing by Rolf’s manner that he was genuinely ignorant and puzzled, the soldier ceased threatening him and explained: “Kid, you’re lucky. You’re gonna be put into the arena to fight. Do a good job and you’ll see no more dungeons. How’d you like a chance to join the army? Have a real man’s life?”
“If I get into the arena with Chup,” said Rolf, his voice low, “I’ll carve his guts out if I can. He’ll have to kill me. So either way I won’t be in your army after that.”
The soldier rubbed his jaw. “The Lord Chup,” he said.
“He picked me out. He said I’d have another chance at him, in a few days.”
“Yeah. Yeah, well, he’s like that. A real man, a real fighter, admires anybody who’ll put up a scrap.”
As much as he hated the invaders, Rolf had to believe in the honesty of the man who had just beaten him, wooden stick against sword. He had been granted clean air and water and good food, and now, it seemed, one to teach him swording. He was being given a real chance, if a small one, to strike back before he was destroyed. “All right, kid, make up your mind.” Rolf smiled, looking down at the wooden sword in his hand. Maybe he could strike back more than once. He lunged forward suddenly and struck, aiming with his best intent to hit the other’s face.
The old soldier’s weapon slid easily up into place to block the blow. He returned Rolf’s bitter smile. “That’s it, hit first and hit hard when you can. Now let me show you how to hold a sword.”
“We must strike first, and strike hard.” Thomas spoke in a low, heavy voice, knowing their truth and at the same time knowing the grim risks that they implied.
Around him in the huge lean-to were assembled such leaders of the Free Folk as had been able to respond in time to his summons to a council. Olanthe sat at his left hand, and Loford at his right. The bird Strijeef had a place in the circle, sitting sideways and with his unwounded wing raised to shield his eyes from the firelight.
Around the island the night noises of the swamp rose and fell. Thomas went on: “When Ekuman has the Elephant, and has made himself its master-then it will be too late for us to attack or de’fend, even if we could raise ten thousand men. Is this not true?”
Loford nodded his great head at once. Others in the circle added their agreement. None could deny what had been said.
Thomas went on: “If we are daring enough, we may let Ekuman dig away the mountain first, then strike to take the treasure from him. But even that moment lies only a few days in the future.”
“The very day of the wedding,” said someone.
“Very likely,” Thomas agreed.
Another man, the leader of a band from the delta region, shook his head. “You want to attack him on his very doorstep. How many men can we raise in a few days, and march there with any secrecy? Hardly more than two hundred, I think!”
There was some discussion. No one could really dispute that the figure of two hundred must be approximately correct.
“Ekuman will have the Elephant-diggings guarded heavily,” the man from the delta predicted. “He must have a thousand men available, in and around the Castle.”
“Still, do you see any alternative to attacking?” Thomas asked him. Then Thomas looked around the fire-lit circle, questioning each person with his eyes. None had anything to suggest. Loford’s visions, and those of the Old One before him, had convinced them all that the Elephant was the key on which the future rested.
“Then, since we must attack, it only remains to determine how. Don’t forget that we now have new powers of magic on our side. The Thunderstone – we’ve already discussed some plans for that. And we’ll find a way to put the Stone of Freedom to work, too. There are plenty of prisoners needing to be freed. One of them, especially, would be important to us now.”
“The boy who was in the cave,” said Olanthe.
Mewick spoke up; with the gray still painted in his hair he looked like some grave tribal elder. “I think the soldiers who had him knew nothing of his importance, of where he had been. On his clothes was much mud, so likely they took him at the riverbank. And they had tied him most casually behind a beast, and they were in no hurry. Also Rolf was smart, he looked at me but once. If he stays smart I think they will just be using him as an ordinary slave.”
Thomas added: “The birds are watching for Rolf in the work parties that go out of the Castle at night. There are some now.” He hesitated. “Of course we can’t be sure he really learned anything about the Elephant.”
“He nodded to me,” said Mewick sadly. “How could he talk? What other signal could he give? So I think that the nod means something.”
Olanthe said: “It might have meant only that he saw you.”
“Well.” With a gesture Thomas put the problem of Rolf aside. “With more knowledge of the Elephant or without it, we still must get the thing out of Eku-man’s hands, or else overthrow him before he can put it to use. Now consider that our friend Ekuman is not stupid, nor are his chief officers. They know that we must act.”
“All the more hopeless then,” said the pessimistic delta-man.
“Not at all,” returned Thomas firmly. He looked round the circle and saw faces steady in their support. “For one thing, we’ll arrange diversions. Draw troops from the Castle if we can, at least keep any more from being sent there. For another, we’ll come at Ekuman in a way he doesn’t expect.”
Bending, he scratched on the bare earth beside the fire a rough map of the Broken Lands. “Here, and here, are the likely places for us to cross the river, to get near the Castle for an attack. Ekuman will be strengthening the night patrol in those places. But we’ll avoid them.”
“It’ll mean a long hike, but we can do it. Go farther south, cross the Dolles in your country, the delta. Move in small groups, mostly at night of course. Get across the mountains there in the south. Reassemble, somewhere on the desert…” Thomas’s voice slowed. He felt a new idea taking shape.
Olanthe seemed to be reading his thoughts. “That’s not far from the Oasis.”
Thomas faced her. “Olanthe, how many of the Oasis farmers would be willing to join us, against the odds that we’ll be facing?”
“How many? Every one of them!” Her face had lighted. “Two hundred and a few more, men and boys. And some of the women will come too. If you once get the invaders off my people’s necks, they’ll go to the Castle and fight, they’ll follow you to the Black Mountains if you like. They’ll fight with their pitchforks and reaping-hooks!”
“They’ll have swords and shields and arrows for the picking-up, if we can hit the Oasis garrison the way they should be hit!” It was a heady thing for Thomas to see, the hope coming into the faces of these strong people who now depended so much on his words.
The objector from the delta was ready and willing to act as an anchor on Thomas’s soaring dreams. “Aye, suppose we do attack the Oasis at night! Suppose we win! Then, what, next day, when the leath-erwings come out from the Castle and see what’s happened? We’re out there, in the midst of the desert; we’ll not get back to the swamp or the mountains before Ekuman’s cavalry has gobbled us up.” His voice became sarcastic. “Or maybe you think we can raid the Oasis and wipe out the garrison, and march away from it again, all in one night?” The man snorted his scorn. “It would’ve been done already if it was so simple.”
“We’ve got new powers now, remember?” Thomas pointed again to the Thunderstone, in a new pouch at Olanthe’s side. “It will bring not only lightning, but sheltering clouds and rain as well. And I mean for us to use every power that it has!”