Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“Said Indra to the demon Namuci, I will slay thee not by day or night, neither with the staff nor with the bow, neither with the palm of the hand nor with the fist, neither with the wet nor with the dry.” “Indra?”

“One of the gods, Lord. Of lightning…” “And of Elephants?” Sarcasm bit in Ekuman’s voice. Elephant was the name of some creature, real or mythical, of the Old World. Here in the Broken Lands depictions of this beast were to be seen in several places: stamped or painted on Old World metal, woven into a surviving scrap of Old World cloth that Ekuman had seen, and carved, probably at some less ancient time, upon a rock cliff in the Broken Mountains.

And now, somehow, the Elephant had come to be the symbol of those who called themselves the Free Folk. Far more important, a referent of this symbol still existed in the form of some real power, hidden somewhere in this land that refused to accept Ekuman as its conqueror -so the Satrap’s wizards assured him, and so he believed. By all surface appearances the land was his, the Free Folk were only an outlaw remnant; yet all the divinings of his magicians warned him that without the Elephant under his control his rule was doomed to perish.

Still he was not really expecting the answer that Elslood gave him:

“Possibly, Lord, quite possibly. In at least one image that I have seen elsewhere, Indra is shown as mounted on what I believe to be an Elephant.” “Then read on.”

The ominous tone was plain in Ekuman’s voice; the wizard read on quickly: ” ‘But he killed him in the morning twilight, by sprinkling over him the foam of the sea.’ The god Indra killed the demon Namuci, that is.”

“Hum.” Ekuman had just noticed something: In-dra-Ardneh. Namuci-Ekuman. Of course a power of magic could reside in words, but hardly in this simple transposition of syllables. The discovery of the apparent verbal trickery brought him relief rather than alarm. The old man, unable to strike back with effect, had still managed to work some subtlety into a dying threat. Subtlety was hardly substance, even in magic.

Ekuman let himself smile faintly. “Fragile sort of demon, to die of a little sea-spray,” he commented.

Relieved, Elslood indulged himself in a light laugh. He leafed through a few more pages of his book. “As I recall the story, Lord, this demon Namuci had kept his life, his soul, hidden in the sea-foam. Therefore was he vulnerable to it.” Elslood shook his head. “One would have thought it a fairly clever choice for a hiding place.”

Ekuman grunted noncommittally. At the sound of a step he turned, to see Zarf entering the Presence Chamber. Zarf was younger and shorter than Elslood and also resembled far less the popular conception of a wizard. Judged by appearance, Zarf might have been a merchant or a prosperous farmer-save for the toad-familiar, which rode now under a fold of cloak at his shoulder, all but invisible save for its lidded eyes.

“You have already finished looking at the old man’s body? It told you nothing?” ‘

“There is nothing to be learned from that, Lord.” Zarf tried to meet Ekuman’s gaze boldly, then looked away. “I can make a further examination later-but there is nothing.”

In silent but obvious dissatisfaction Ekuman regarded his two magicians, who awaited his pleasure standing motionless but otherwise quite like children in their fear. It was a continual enjoyment to the Satrap to have power over people as powerful as these. Of course it was not by any innate personal strength or skill that Ekuman could dominate Elslood and Zarf. His command over them had been given to him in the East, and well they knew how effectively he might enforce it. The toad-familiar, beneath any threat of punishment, squealed shrilly in some private mirth.

Having given the wizards time to consider the possible consequences of his wrath, Ekuman said, “Since neither of you can now tell me anything of value, you had better get to your crystals and ink-pools and see what you can learn. Or has either of you some stronger method of clairvoyance to propose?”

“No, Lord,” said Elslood, humble.

“No, Lord.” But then Zarf dared to attempt defense. “Since this Elephant we seek is doubtless not a living creature, but some work of…engineering, science…” The absurd words still came hard to Zarf. “… then to locate it, to find out anything about it more than we know already, that it exists and is important, this may be beyond the skill of any man in divination….” And Zarf’s voice trailed off in fear as his glance returned to Ekuman’s face.

Ekuman moved wearily across the Presence Chamber, opened a door, and set foot upon the stair that led up to his private apartments. “Find me the Elephant,” he ordered, simply and dangerously, ere he began to climb. As he went, his voice came drifting down to them: “Send me the Master of the Troops, and the Master of the Reptiles as well. I will have my power in this land made secure, and I will have it quickly!”

“The day of his daughter’s wedding draws near,” Zarf whispered, nodding solemnly. The two men looked grimly at each other. Both knew how important it was to Ekuman that his power should be, or at least appear, seamless and perfect on the day when the Lords and Ladies from other Satrapies around appeared here at the Castle for the wedding feast.

“I will go down,” sighed Elslood at last, “and try if I may learn something from the old one’s corpse. And I will see to it that the ones he wants are summoned. Do you stay here and endeavor again to achieve some useful vision.” Zarf, nodding in agreement, was already hurrying to the alcove where he kept his own devices; he would pour a pool of ink and gaze into it.

On the first landing of the stair below the Presence Chamber Elslood drew aside to make room, and bowed low to the Princess Charmian, who was going up. Her beauty rose through the dim passage like a sun. She wore cloth of bronze and silver and black, and a scarf of red and black for her betrothed. Her serving-women, whom she chose for ugliness, came following in a nervous file.

Charmian ascended past Elslood without deigning to give him a word or glance. For his part, as always, he could not keep himself from following her with his eyes until she was out of sight.

He straightened, then, and put a hand into a secret pocket of his robe and touched the long strands of her golden hair that he kept there. Those hairs had been obtained at deadly risk, and twisted, with many a powerful incantation, into an intricate magic knot of love. And then, alas, the love-charm had proved useless to Elslood -as he had known all along, in his heart, that it would be. Any mastery of love was forbidden him, as part of the price of his great sorcerer’s power.

And he thought now that the knot of Charmian’s golden hair would be of doubtful benefit to any man. One as utterly evil as the Princess could hardly be moved by any charm to anything like love.



When he came to the end of the furrow and swung the rude plow around and chanced to raise his eyes, Rolf beheld a sight both expected and terrible -the winged reptiles of the Castle were coming out to scour the countryside once again.

May some demon devour them, if they come near our fowl today! he thought. But he was no sorcerer to have the ordering of demons. He could do nothing but stand helplessly and watch.

At Rolf’s back, the afternoon sun was some four hours above the Western Sea, the shore being several kilometers from where Rolf stood, the land between for the most part low and marshy. Looking ahead, he could see above nearby treetops part of the jagged line of the Broken Mountains, half a day’s walk to the east. He could not see the Castle itself, but he knew well where it was, perched on the south side of the central pass that pierced those mountains through from east to west. The reptiles came from the Castle, and there dwelt those who had brought the reptiles to the Broken Lands-folk so evil that they seemed themselves inhuman, though they wore human form.

Spreading westward now from the direction where the Castle lay, in Rolfs eyes disfiguring all the fairness of the springtime sky, came a swarming formation of dots. Rolf had heard that the reptiles’ human masters sent them out to search for something more than prey, that there was something hidden that Ekuman most desperately desired to find. Whether that was true or not, the reptiles most certainly ravaged the farmers’ lands for food and sport.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred