He realized gradually that the tap on the roof had been like the sound of a tiny pebble, dropped from a great height.
The sentry was nearly due again. Rolf made himself lie quiet on the straw until the man had shuffled past. And no sooner had the guard vanished than another pebble came, this one bouncing on the pavement before his cell, rising to ping faintly from a bar of the grillwork; Rolf could not see it but there was no doubt at all about the sound. He jumped to the door, reached out and up to grab his shirt and sweep it from side to side, waving it across~the roof. Then he pulled the garment quickly into the cell, tore off the stones and threw them away. He rubbed and crumpled his message into an unreadable smudge and put the shirt on again.
He had living and watchful friends. He was not forgotten, not entirely alone. He pulled the shirt around him tightly. Only then did he realize that his sudden shivering was not due to cold or fear, but to a triumph that must be kept in silence.
On the next day Rolf practiced his swording with a will, winning some mild praise from his tutor. On the following night Rolf made no attempt to signal again-it was very dangerous, and he had nothing new to say-but he lay wide awake, listening, until the hour when the exchange of signals had taken place on the previous night.
Click. Click. Click. Evenly matched and spaced, three tiny impacts on his roof. He sat upright with a jerk, then waited, propped on one elbow in the straw. Did the bird expect him to reply? He went to the door and put his arm out and waved it slowly back and forth, once, twice, thrice. Then he lay awake listening and wondering for a long time, but no further signal came from above.
Fight For The Oasis
Lying sprawled near the top of the gentle dune, peering over its crest, Thomas could see the dark island-like mass of the Oasis of the Two Stones spread before him in the moonlight, its nearest boundary less than a hundred meters away. The night made the outlines of the great circle of fertile land uncertain, and gave it a half-magical look. Still, since Olanthe had schooled him in the matter, he could pick out where the different areas of the settlement were.
Most of the Oasis’ area was in the wide outer ring of cultivated fields. The invaders, Olanthe said, had at first wanted to fence in the whole fertile circle, but fence-building materials were hard to come by here in the desert, and they had concentrated on finishing their inner works.
On one side of the central area of the Oasis all the farmers’ dwellings, semi-permanent structures of wooden frames and stretched hides, had been moved together, crowded close to one another, and a strong fence built around them. In this compound the people of the Oasis could be confined every night at sunset. And by night as well as by day strong mounted and foot patrols of Castle-soldiers roamed the fields and paths around the perimeter of the watered land.
Stretched out on the dune with Thomas, and on the dunes immediately to east and west, were the two hundred men and women of his attacking force, resting now in silence from the hard march that had brought themouthere from the mountains. Olanthe lay at his left side, and on his right was Mewick, face darkened with earth for the night attack until it looked like the visage of some carven demon of melancholy.
Beyond Mewick, Loford lay, the faint wheeze of his breathing carrying in the stillness to Thomas’s ears. Olanthe’s hair blew in the night breeze, touching Thomas on the cheek. She was leaning toward him to whisper, and stretching out an arm to point. There, she was showing him, in the Oasis’ central area, lay the defensive compound of the enemy. That was where the bulk of them must be taken by surprise tonight and slaughtered. Two corners of its high palisade were marked now by the distant sparks of torches. Olanthe had explained earlier that the gate of it usually stood open, though of course there would be a guard.
Thomas knew there were a score of birds over the Oasis now, invisible to human or reptilian eyes. They were marking for him the positions of the enemy patrols, and once the attack began it would be the birds’ job to prevent the escape of a single foe, on wing or foot. For the Castle to learn of this attack tonight, or even tomorrow, would probably mean disaster; the Free Folk meant to rest in the Oasis for a day and a night before beginning the march that would take them straight into the decisive battle for the Elephant. Tonight’s fight could be decisive only if the Free Folk lost.
“Pass the word again,” Thomas whispered now, repeating the message both to left and right. “No burning.” Any great fire would surely be seen by the watch on the battlements of the distant Castle; then morning would surely bring reptiles, to investigate; and after reptiles would come the cavalry in force. Ekuman would need no Elephant to win a battle fought by day and in the open.
Loford was crawling toward Thomas now. A few moments ago the Big One had gone back down the dune, and now was coming up again, between Thomas and Mewick. The wizard moved, Thomas thought, with all the stealth of a foundered plow-beast; but even he could not make a great deal of noise in soft sand, so this time it did not matter.
“I have been trying this and that,” Loford rumbled softly, collapsing with a grunt to lie beside him at full length. “But things are just not favorable for magic. Too many swords are out, I suppose.”
“Not even an elemental?” Thomas wanted all the help that he could get, and he knew that Loford had a knack for elementals.
Loford shook his head. “I might draw up a good one from the desert. But not at night. The desert is day. Sun, and heat, and a withering wind throwing a blast of sand -aye, I might fetch up something to please you! But not at night.” The wizard sounded guilty and defensive.
Thomas hit his shoulder gently. “I wasn’t really counting on your powers tonight. We made need that sand-elemental more, to screen us when we’re crossing the desert toward the Castle day after tomorrow. In case the Thunderstone doesn’t draw enough rain for us to hide in.” r
“I am thinking about that march; tossing the Stone ahead of us to keep drawing rain, and dodging thunderbolts. It should be as adventurous as some battles. And you want an elemental to keep us company too. Ho!”
“Sh!” hissed Mewick.
In a very low whisper Thomas added: “And I am thinking that we will fight no more swamp-battles. One way or the other.”
The shadow of a bird came drifting down in ghostly silence to stand just below Thomas on the dune. Wings proudly spread, it reported on just how many enemy patrols were out, and where. Thomas hurriedly made decisions, and passed orders to his squad leaders down the line. One squad he detailed to positions along the western rim of the Oasis, to be ready to intercept any of the enemy who might try to flee toward the Castle.
“And we are ready in the air, Thomas,” the bird assured him. “If the reptiles dare to arise, not one of them will escape.”
Orders acknowledged, the long rank of human figures began to break up, drifting away in silent clusters, half-visible under the Moon. “Go now,” said Thomas to the bird, “and bring me word as soon as our squads are in position of the far side of the Oasis.” The separate attacks on enemy patrols must be made as nearly simultaneous as possible, and at the same time the entrance to the inner compound should be seized.
With a sweep of wings the courier drifted up and away. Now, if anything had been forgotten, it was too late to mend. Thomas thought to himself that being a leader gave one advantage anyway: there was no time for a man to worry much about his own skin.
His eyes met Olanthe’s in the moonlight, and they looked at each other for a time. Neither felt need to speak.
The bird was back before he had really started to expect it. “They are ready on the far side, Thomas. And along the western edge.”
“So. Then we are ready too.” He drew a deep breath and looked at the remnant of his force that was still near enough for him to see. “And we attack.”
With a wave of his arm he motioned forward the dozen who were to accompany him closely into the fight, to try to seize the inner compound’s gate. Another squad of the same size, led by Mewick, would be following closely, hoping to be able to rush through the gate and kill sleeping invaders in their barracks.
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