Yet another squad of Free Folk came pouring into the compound now, and with them the ‘first of the farmers to rise in arms-pitchforks and reaping-hooks, as predicted, and a raging joyous fury. Thomas ran to meet these, and led them to the headquarters building.
On the headquarters roof, guards and officers and orderlies in bronze helmets were holding off the Free Folk with pike and sword and mace, protecting one corner of the palisade. There one of their number was waving torches to drive off birds, while another tried to pull the protective net away from a reptile-roost; they meant to get a courier away to Ekuman.
The soldier waving torches went down, struck by a pitchfork hurled up from the ground. Thomas skipped quickly over the shingles to kick the flaming brands off the roof before they could set fire to it. The man struggling with the net at last succeeded in getting it out of the reptiles’ way-but not one of them ventured out of the doorway of the roost. The night belonged to the birds, and well the reptiles knew it.
Thunder grumbled overhead. Suddenly there was no one but Free Folk left standing on the roof, though others were still lying there. Blood slicked the shingles underfoot and trickled in the rain-gutters. Someone had taken up a captured pike and was starting to try to prod the reptiles out of their little house. Birds were landing at the doorway, their soft voices vibrant, urging those within who had eaten birds’ eggs not to be shy now, but come out and welcome their guests come to return the call.
Men down on the ground at the entrance to the headquarters building were calling for Thomas. He swung over the edge of the roof and dropped down to discover that some of Mewick’s squad thought they had nabbed the garrison commander. They shoved forward a gray-haired fellow with a thin ropy neck. They had caught him in a store-room, putting on a private soldier’s uniform.
Rain pattered down, then drummed. Lightning was marching closer. In one sudden white opening of the sky, Thomas looked up and saw Strijeef, old wound still bandaged on one wing, eyes mad and glaring, emerging from a reptile-roost. Leathery eggshell clung to the talons of his upraised foot. His beak and his feathers were stained with purplish blood.
“See to the other roost!” Thomas shouted up. Then he dragged the gray-haired prisoner to Olanthe, and some of the other Oasis-folk, to make absolutely sure of who he was. Olanthe was out in the center of the parade-ground, in range of arrows from the still-resistingbarracks. A couple of farmers were standing by with captured shields, ready to deflect any shafts that came at those working to take the old man down from his scaffold. Olanthe was weeping, oblivious of arrows; Thomas realized that the man on the cross must be her father.
The victim was just being lowered when the Thunderstone got the lightning it was calling for. The bolt followed the corner of the barracks from eaves to ground, opening the structure like a great egg carefully topped at table. The rain, pouring now, prevented any fire from catching. Thomas ran to join his men entering the breach, but his leadership was not needed. His force swept in through the riven wall and completed the night’s work without further loss to themselves.
And so ended the battle for the Oasis. Olanthe’s father and the other wounded freedom fighters were carried out of the invaders’ compound to be cared for in the farmers’ homes. From the farmers’ compound, a prison no longer, voices began to rise, men and women and children singing in the gladness of their deliverance.
At a touch on his shoulder Thomas turned, to see Loford standing there, grinning hugely; on the upper part of the wizard’s big right arm a small wound was bleeding.
“How was the fighting?” Thomas asked.
“Oh, very good! Oh, excellent! I tell you I was once facing two of them -but I am come to remind you, this time the Thunderstone is yours to pick up.”
“That’s right.” Thomas, grinning, thinking how he would torment Loford by never asking him how he had got his glorious wound, trotted over to the shattered barracks and picked up the graven case from a puddle.
While he was there a bird came down to him, bringing the good report that not a single enemy had escaped the slaughter. Several members of the patrols ambushed in the fields had tried to get away, to reach the Castle, when they saw that the whole Oasis was under attack. All but one of these had been cut down by Thomas’s men left along the Oasis’ western boundary for the purpose. The one man who had got past them, mounted, had been dragged bloodily from his saddle while at full gallop, by three of the Silent People who had overtaken and fastened on him from above. And now even the terrified beast he had been riding was caught and being brought back to the stables.
Though the fighting was over, no one who was not wounded could be allowed to rest. There was too much to be done before dawn. The wounded must be moved out of sight and cared for, the dead must be buried and then all traces of their graves effaced. Any couriers from the Castle must not be allowed to suspect what had happened -not until they had landed, or at least descended within certain arrow-range.
The wall of the riven barracks was hastily propped up in place, and the gaps mended as well as possible. At dawn the farmers would go to their fields in the usual numbers to do their ordinary tasks. Men of the Free Folk would put on uniforms of bronze and black for incoming reptiles to see, and would march or ride or stand on watch. The mess of shattered eggs and purplish reptile blood was scraped and scrubbed from the outer porches of the roosts.
“One thing more,” said Olanthe. And she nodded at the empty gibbet in the center of the parade-ground, from which her father had been taken almost too late to save his life. In her voice was a hardness that Thomas had not heard there before.
“A dead man will do,” Thomas said. “A gray-haired one.” He tried to remember some corpse among those now being buried that would be a fair match for Olanthe’s father; it was a hopeless effort. He turned to look over the handful of prisoners who were still alive, awaiting some questioning; there hung the long disheveled locks of the garrison commander.
Thomas nodded at him, and the men who had the prisoners in charge immediately caught his meaning. Grinning, they pulled the waxen-faced officer forward. “We’ll mount him for you, Chief! And we’ll see to it that his hide’s decorated properly first!”
That was exactly right. That was the best thing to do. But Thomas turned away. He saw Mewick, sad-faced as ever, turning also. But Mewick was not the one who bore responsibility. Thomas made himself turn back and watch, and listen to the whipping. He was surprised at the effort it took him -as if he had never seen blood before. Olanthe was watching, with a look of remote satisfaction. But Thomas was afraid. He feared the urgings and the delights of power, that he could feel stirring within himself like the pangs of some glamorous sickness.
The whipping of the garrison commander was useless. All through the next day, while he hung dead on the cross, no couriers from the Castle came. The Free Folk, and the Oasis farmers who were going to march with them, half-rested through the day, and then relaxed more completely on the following night.
On that night the birds brought word that they had learned Rolf’s whereabouts in the Castle, and repeated his message to Thomas. They had tried to alert him that the attack was coming in three nights. If Rolf was ever taken out of doors after dark they would try to put the Prisoner’s Stone into his hands.
I Am Ardneh
Three pebbles on Rolf’s cell roof one night, and at the same hour on the next night, two. He waved back twice.
On the morning after that, Rolf for the first time was given a genuine keen-edged sword and, with this weapon he spent the morning lunging and hacking at the timber butts. His tutor stood by criticizing, flanked by a pair of pikemen who held their long weapons at the ready all the time that Rolf was truly armed.
In the afternoon Rolf and his tutor were alone again, once more dueling with the dulled and blunt-tipped blades. And during this session the tutor’s parries were in several instances too low, and Rolf managed to poke him in the belly or hack him bloodlessly on the arm. Rolf drew small satisfaction from this, being thoroughly suspicious that the soldier was letting him win to build his confidence. If the tutor had but known it, the two pike-men in the morning had gone a long way to accomplish that.
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