Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The outer boundary of the Oasis was marked by a ditch that, according to Olanthe, served to keep the desert from drifting in. Crossing it now, she whispered to Thomas: “Nearly dry. We must use the Stone for rain while we are here.”

Once past this outer ditch, Thomas led his squad between rows of knee-high plants toward the Oasis’ center. He motioned his people to spread out, and at first set the pace across the level ground at a crouching run. When they had covered a few hundred meters he slowed to a walk, and a little while later dropped down to crawl between the rows of plants. There would be a patrol of eight foot-soldiers not far ahead. Thomas’s and Mewick’s squads were supposed to sneak past this patrol, leaving it to be ambushed by other Free Folk a little farther on.

Thomas saw the patrol, walking in slow single file on a course at right angles to his own. The moon turned the bronze helms into ghosts’ heads. He stopped crawling, and around him his squad melted into the soil and the night.

The enemy passed. Then their leader took an unexpected turn. Raising his head a few centimeters, Thomas saw them now heading straight for where Mewick’s squad had gone to earth. Only let it be silent, Thomas thought, when an encounter appeared inevitable.

The soldiers’ leader stopped, making a startled, turning movement. Around him and his men, Mewick’s people rose up like dark and silent demons. They had the advantages of numbers, twelve to eight, and of surprise, and it was no wonder that they cut down the Castle-men without loss to themselves. Still, silence had been too much to expect, and a pair of screams went drifting in the night.

Thomas stood up tensely, looking toward the center of the Oasis, now less than half a kilometer distant. Olanthe’s hand was on his arm. “That may not alarm the central compound,” she said softly. “They may think only that some fugitives are being chased through the fields, or that birds are harassing a patrol. That sometimes happens.”

“There may be noise from the other patrols at any moment. We’d better hurry.” Thomas waved his own squad forward. He motioned Mewick to follow closely, and got an acknowledging wave.

Thomas’s short-sword rode in a scabbard strapped against his leg. He saw Olanthe loosening a long knife in its sheath at her hip as they walked.

Now the Oasis’ central area grew close enough for details to be visible. There was the barrier of sharpened stakes, forming a prison compound where the Oasis-folk were penned at night. Thomas could see clay silos, barns, and storage bins. And, straight ahead, the invaders’ defensive palisade, wherein the torches still burned. The gate was open. No trees were to be seen; Olanthe had said they had all gone to make the stockade. No humans or reptiles were in sight.

“Let the two of us go first,” Thomas whispered when his squad had gathered round him. Then he took Olanthe by the hand and walked with her along the dark path that led almost straight from where they were to the open gate of the palisade. Now he could see the arm and part of the uniform of a soldier who seemed to be lounging just inside the gate. The hope was that the first few soldiers who saw Thomas and Olanthe would take them for nothing more dangerous than a young couple trying to sneak in after curfew.

On the right side of the path ran the barricade enclosing the houses of the farm folk, and on the left side were tall storage bins. From behind one of these a soldier stepped out suddenly to bar their way.

He showed a pleased grin at their starts of surprise. “Looking for a hole under the fence somewhere? I hope your frolicking half the night was worth it, because – ” He peered more closely at Olanthe’s hand. “What’ve you got there?”

From somewhere out in the fields came a yell of fear, agony weakened and purified by distance. The soldier saw Olanthe’s long knife, and his mouth was forming for an echoing yell as he started to draw his sword; he meant to step back, but Thomas’s blade was already between his ribs.

Thomas heard two dozen feet come shuffle-pounding speedily on the path behind him as he sprinted for the palisade gate. A pair of sentries came into view, alarmed -too late. They had time to yell, but no time more.

The gate taken, Thomas cast one look backward. Mewick’s squad was coming on the run, only a few meters down the path. Then he put Olanthe aside with one arm and turned and ran on into the compound, sprinting for the open doorway of the nearest barracks. On the right as he faced inward from the gate he saw stables along the palisade, and then the barracks, a long low timber building big enough for nearly a hundred men. On the left side of the compound were similar stables and barracks, and on the side opposite the gate another long low building that Thomas knew housed the officers and served as headquarters. All the center of the compound was bare sandy earth, pounded flat by marching feet. Before the headquarters building a flagpole held a limp banner of Ekuman’s black and bronze. And in the very center of the parade-ground, upon a sort of cruciform gibbet, there was a man bound living -a naked man with the wounds of whipping striped across his body, who raised his gray head now to stare at Thomas. Thomas had no time now for a close look at the victim; his running strides were carrying him on toward the barracks’ open door.

A man came stepping out of this doorway, half-naked and half-awake, buckling on a sword. He stumbled to a halt, eyes and mouth widening at the sight of Thomas, charging, huge, black all over for the night attack.

Thomas aimed for the middle of the body, drove his short sword in nearly to the hilt, shoved the dead man back into the barracks and went in after him. Right at his back his raiders poured after him through the narrow door, all bellowing now to raise up terror and panic. Before him, only a few of the enemy as yet had weapons in their hands. Thomas was no master swordsman, and he knew it. So he used the advantages he did have, his strength and size, for all that they were worth. With two hammering strokes he beat down his next opponent’s guard, and with the next stroke cut his arm off near the elbow.

In a moment the raiders controlled the door, and the weapon-rack that stood beside it, from which Thomas grabbed himself a shield; in a few moments more what was going on could no longer be called a fight. Castle-men were killed in their hammocks, stabbed crawling in corners, died while playing dead, were slaughtered like scrambling, squealing meat-beasts in a pen.

The killing was still unfinished when Thomas scrambled over the slippery floor back to the door again. By now more than a score of Free Folk were inside the compound, and in front of the other barracks a fierce fight raged. Mewick was there, thrusting with a long dagger, swinging a war-hatchet that looked like some peasants’ tool save for its swordlike basket-hilt.

Even with one barracks cleaned out, the Free Folk inside the stockade were still outnumbered. Yelling, Thomas led his own squad charging to Mewick’s aid.

The men in the second barracks had been given just a few more moments to rouse themselves than the men in the first barracks had enjoyed, and that made a great difference. These men were just starting to pour out and fight, but when Thomas charged they began retreating into the barracks again, probably not realizing in the confusion that the advantage of numbers was still theirs. Arrows began to come singing out of the slits in the barracks’ timber wall. The barracks was a solid structure, built right against the strong high palisade.

“Remember, no burning!” Thomas shouted. He could see two of his men down already with arrows in them. But welcome reinforcements were now charging in at the palisade’s gate, Free Folk who had evidently finished their ambush of one of the outer patrols.

Olanthe popped up from somewhere to stand at Thomas’s side. “Keep down!” he barked, gripping her protectively. He reached into her pack and took out the Thunderstone, and rolled it toward the barracks. The battered metal case bounced to a stop just at a corner of the low building.

It would take some little time for the storm to develop. Meanwhile, Thomas disposed some men to discourage those inside the barracks from sallying; that done, he turned the greater part of his attention to the headquarters building. He saw that Mewick had already led men onto the roof of it, where they were fighting with some bronze-helmets who had climbed up from inside. Others were trading spearthrusts and missiles at the doors and windows.

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