Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Now there were only the purposeful noises of workers in the chamber. The fire was dead; Ekuman shut off his foam-thrower and set it down. Nils was still alive, and the tall wizard Elslood seemed unhurt.

Out on the terrace the rain was trailing off to nothing, but daylight was not returned. The sun, Rolf thought, must be already down.

It was not light that burst in next at the exploded window. It was a patch of darkness, darkness not black, but gray-green scale. The reptile flapped to a halt in the midst of the white floor, cawing out to Ekuman:

“My Lawrd! M’Lawwrd! The enemy attacks, acraaws the pass!”


To Ride The Elephant

Rolf lunged and twisted in the soldiers’ grip, trying to see outside. Peering through a narrow north window into the deep dusk, he managed to see only a few distant sparks, fires or torches, before he was wrenched away.

“Take this one back to his cell,” an officer was ordering. “Keep him alone until the Lord Ekuman has time to question him again.”

Rolf’s guards hustled him downstairs. Several times they paused, making way for messengers dashing up or down. Rolf could see nothing but elation among the soldiers at the news that the Free Folk were attacking in force. The Castle-men had no doubt that they could win a battle in the open, even at night.

Each time he passed a window Rolf tried futilely to get a look at what was going on outside. Three, two, one -so the count had gone, aiming at tonight. The signals must have been meant to tell him of something that involved him more directly than the attack across the pass. Something would be expected of him. And now he was going back to his cell, where his friends would expect him to be.

Extra torches had been lighted in the courtyards, which were filled with a confusion of hurrying people and animals. Three, two, one, the time had come, and he was still alive to see it. Rolf was at a peak of alertness, and his ears at once caught the high clear hooting that drifted down to him from above. He did not look up, for on the instant a small object struck the paving near his feet and bounced up right before him. Tied to the missile was a note, a paper-at least a white tail of some kind.

Rolf caught the stone on its first bounce, thinking meanwhile that the bird was mad to drop a message to him in this way. His guards’ hands grabbed at him, then unaccountably slipped away as the stone came firmly into his grasp. He twisted free, hoping to gain a moment to discover what words were worth getting him killed in order that he might read them.

“Put that down!” a guard bawled, and followed this urging with a string of demons’ names, directed at his mate who for some reason had come blundering awkwardly into him. Rolf skipped away farther, and got the paper open, but before he could try to read it the two men were coming at him, hands outstretched. Rolf raised the rock, on the point of trying to brain one of them with it, but in that instant a door opened in the wall just at his back. The door was left ajar by the soldier who came running through it on some urgent errand; as if he did not see them, he ran right in the way of the two coming after Rolf.

Seizing the opportunity, Rolf dodged through the door. It slammed shut of itself behind him, then creaked with the weight of his shouting pursuers. He was in another courtyard, this one nearly filled with soldiers just forming up for roll call. There were no more open doors in sight. Rolf darted past a gaping officer and then, since there was nowhere else to run, went dodging through the ranks, looking frantically for some way out. Men stared at him, some cursed, some laughed.

“Seize that man!”

“He’s greased!”


“What’s up here? Seize that man!”

“It’s some slave, kill him and have done.”

“No, that’s one of those the Satrap wants to question! Take him alive!”

Holding up his arms to shield his face, smarting from the slapping hands that could not hold him, Rolf emerged from the gauntlet -on the wrong side, he saw now. In his confusion he had turned back toward the keep. Aware now that some magic was protecting him from capture, he turned again.

The company of soldiers had turned into a mob, shouting, roaring, floundering into one another’s way. Rolf slipped past and through them. Their fingers lashed him like so many branches, powerless to grab. The disgusted officer, even as he bellowed to his men to form a ring, stepped aside himself, as if absentmindedly letting Rolf run by.

A low wall loomed ahead, the side of a one-story shed. Rolf sprang atop a barrel sitting near the wall, and from there leaped again without pausing. The springy wood of the barrelhead seemed to add unnaturally to his momentum. Scarcely did his hands need to touch the eaves before his feet were on the gentle slope of the roof; he bounded on across it, not slowing for an instant. The Stone was tingling in his fingers. A present from Loford; he should have understood that at once. ‘

Between him and the Castle’s mighty outer wall was one last courtyard, and at this courtyard’s farther end the postern gate -a narrow door, now closed, barred heavily, and guarded on the inside by a pair of sentries. These looked up in astonishment as Rolf came leaping lightly from the low roof, bounced to his feet and raced toward them. He was trusting utterly in the power of the magic that had been given him. As he ran he heard voices raised behind him crying, “Ho, guards! Stop that fugitive! Kill him if you must but stop him!”

One of the sentries began to draw his sword. Rolf came running on, holding the Stone before him in two hands, as if he charged the gate behind a battering-ram. Indeed, the effect seemed much the same. When Rolf was still five running strides inside the gate, the giant bar that held it shut went flying, spinning high into the air. In the same instant, with a booming sound, the door itself flung wide. The sentries cringed away and it took them an instant to recover. As Rolf’s strides carried him through the gate the corner of his eye showed him a sword-stroke coming; he felt only the merest touch, below one shoulder blade, and then he was free, flying safe into the enveloping dark.

The descending slope outside the Castle walls soon gentled beneath Rolf’s feet. The stars were coming out now, and he very quickly had his bearings. He was on the east side of the Castle. He would have to circle to his left, giving the walls a wide berth, to come to the north side of the pass and the Elephant-cave. Looking that way now, he saw fewer torches than he had seen earlier from the Castle window. Shouting, terrible and vague, drifted to him from that direction. Rolf began to trot, listening each moment for another sound-but the voice of Elephant had not been reawakened yet, for all that he could hear.

Almost at once he was forced to slow down again to a cautious walk. Guarded human voices were audible, not far ahead. As Rolf’s eyes adjusted to the night, and the starry sky grew brighter with the clouds’ dispersal, he could see human figures, vague and distant shadows, moving in the same general direction as he. He could not see whether they were friends or enemies. Probably the whole valley of the pass was crawling with moving troops belonging to both sides.

“Roolf!” This time the hooting cry was soft, quivering as if with delight, and very near, just above his head. “Well done, well flown, oh heavy egg!”

He looked up at the dark hovering shape.


“Yes, yes, it is me. Hurry on, hurry! More to your right. Is Ekuman dead?”

“Not when I saw him last. The lightning missed him, though it did his friends no good. Where’s Thomas? Strijeef, you must guide me to the Elephant.”

“I have come to guide you there. Run, the way ahead is clear just now! Thomas is busy fighting. He asks if you can wake the Elephant and ride him into battle.”

“Tell him yes, yes, yes, if I can get into the cave. And get the Elephant out. Is anyone in there now? Is there fighting?”

“Nooo. The fighting has been in front of the big doors; they are still closed. The Stone you carry will help you thrust them open from the inside. Ekuman would trust none of his people to enter the cave without him; so I have been able to fix a rope in the place you carved to hold one. When we get there I will let it down for you to climb.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred