Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Several times Strijeef had him detour around enemy troops, or waij for them to pass. In the intervals when it was safe to talk Rolf could move swiftly, while Strijeef told him much of what had.happened; how Feathertip had been killed and himself wounded, helping Thomas, and Rolf therefore left to himself in the cave. How the Thunderstone had been found, and used to cover the Free Folk’s passage across the desert today; and when they were hidden at the side of a mountain, how it had been returned, in a captured pouch, to the body of the reptile that had fallen with it, and that body uncovered again for Ekuman’s scouts to find.

“And this Stone you dropped to me, Bird. What’s this note tied to it? Do you know I was nearly killed trying to get it open to read it?”

“Whoo!” Strijeef thought that was funny. “The note just tells you what the Stone is; you found that out for yourself. Hoo! it was fun to watch the way you flew, over a roof and through a wall!”

By this time Rolf had crossed the road at the bottom of the pass, and now the northern slope was steepening under his feet. He passed a nearly-burned-out signal torch, still casting brightness on the sand in a little circle which included the dead hand of the soldier who had held it. Rolf would have stopped to grope around the dead man for weapons, but Strijeef chided him to hurry. “The enemy is still holding in front of the big doors. The fighting there has stopped right now and our men have pulled back a little. I’ll guide you around them all.”

They went on up the northern slope. Once more Rolf had to stop and wait, crouching in silence, listening to a file of the enemy go past him, moving west to east across the slope. When the last sound of them had died away, the hovering bird plucked at Rolf’s shirt with a silent claw, and he arose and followed Strijeef on up the hill. Now he recognized the silhouette of the familiar towers of rock against the sky. Now around him in the darkness there rose the pitiful loud moaning of the wounded.

“How has the fighting gone?” Rolf dared to whisper, once when the bird’s wing came near enough to brush his face.

“Not too bad, not too good. The Castle-men have no eyes to see for them in the dark, but still they have the greater numbers. Quiet, now.”

Strijeef led Rolf by one of the eastern crevices into the complex of tumbled rocks. Rolf groped his way, climbing over boulders and squeezing between them. At last he felt the canyon’s familiar sandy floor beneath his feet, and then the jagged rocks that he knew were rightbelowthe mouth of the high cave. Strijeef went rising silently ahead of him, and a moment later the climbing rope came hissing and uncoiling down the cliff to touch Rolf’s face.

He gave the rope a hard precautionary tug, then went up swiftly. From the wound on his back there was a light tugging pain, too small to be worrisome. Once having gained the high cave -with Strijeef fluttering nervously just outside, still urging him on -he quickly pulled up the rope. Leaving the anchor-stick in the notch, he crawled through the blackness to the chimney and let the rope down again. On the descent into the lower cave there was no room for the bird to guide him, but he could easily feel his way. Soon he could lay first his hand and then his forehead against the cool solidity of Elephant’s flank.

At that moment all exhaustion seemed to drop away; and only as his weariness left him did he realize how great it had become. Now it seemed that some of Elephant’s age-old power came flowing into him, the strength of some fantastic metal army descending to his muscles and his hands. His hands, moving caressingly rather than groping over Elephant’s cool side, quickly found the recessed steps and grips. Before he tugged open the circular door, he remembered to close his dark-adjusted eyes, and to warn Strijeef to do the same.

The expected shock of light from within came redly through his eyelids. He climbed inside and tugged the door tightly shut behind him, squinting to make sure the massive latch was caught. With an odd feeling of homecoming he made his way to the seat that he had occupied before, meanwhile gradually getting his eyes opened. The familiar whisper of air was moving around him. His hands at once began their half-remembered task of goading Elephant up out of his slumber.

Blinking sleepy panel-lights at Rolf, Elephant uttered his first groan. This wakening was not so shuddering and agonized as his last had been -Rolf supposed Elephant had not had time to sink age-deep in sleep again. The CHECKLIST symbols lighted reassuringly, and once more Rolf began the ritual of wiping out the colored dots. The vision-ring descended as before to make a circle around his head. Through it the cave grew visible around him, and Strijeef flying in the cave in anxious circles. The bird’s eyes were open wide, black fathomless pupils dilated as Rolf had never before been able to see them; every feather of the bird’s spread wings, and the bandage on one wing, were plain. Elephant’s night-seeing was evidently as good as any bird’s; if Rolf could once burst from the cave, he would need no guidance to find the enemy.

Dot by dot CHECKLIST vanished. This time the process went much faster than before. Elephant’s un-breathing voice roared strong and sure. Strijeef said the sound of that voice had led the enemy to the cave. Well, let them hear it now. Let it shake the ground beneath their feet, all across the valley. Let it vibrate in the dungeons of the Castle, and quiver in the bones of those who stood commanding in the proud tower above!

Suddenly the green tracery of light showed on the two big levers, standing one on each side of Rolf’s chair. He reached inside his shirt, to touch again the Stone of Freedom where he had it tucked away. And then he gripped the levers and gently pulled.

Elephant backed up, grumbling, turning at Rolf’s direction to aim head-on at the doors that must be opened. Strijeef’s flying circle in the air blurred with the speed of his excitement. Rolf shoved both levers hard forward.

His huge mount shouted out, as if in rage and charged like a raging beast. Rolf seemed to feel the Stone he carried twitch inside his shirt. Before Elephant had touched the big doors they were opening, jerking sideways like cloth curtains before the invisible influence of the Stone. Elephant’s impatient shoulders caught them even as they parted, and Rolf heard the metal barrier give way, like paper tearing noisily.

The boulders that Ekuman’s slaves had not yet been able to remove slowed Elephant as he went tilting out upon the open slope. But they could not stop him; they slid or rolled or bounded, making way.

Startlingly plain, the Castle was suddenly in front of Rolf. And visible were both armies in the field, spread across the valley of the pass in groping files and squads and ambushes. All of them were still now, waiting for the outcome of this moment, hearing the mighty unseen crashing and bursting out of Elephant, knowing what it was but not what it might mean. Elephant’s buried voice had warned them all a little distance from the doors, but still some, both friend and foe, were near enough for Rolf to see their wonderment and fear. All their faces, blind with darkness, were turned straining toward him.

Rolf kept his two drive levers pushed well forward. Bellowing out his rage across the valley, Elephant charged down the slope, rapidly picking up speed. Rolf had selected his first target -a company of enemy cavalry. They were just starting to walk their mounts upslope from the bottom of the pass, coming too late to reinforce their mates in the fighting near the cave.

Rolf steered to hit their file head-on. He jounced and bounced with his mount’s increasingfcpeed but kept his seat. Hearing Elephant’s approach if still unable to see it, the company mounted. But in another moment their animals were uncontrollable, they panicked and fled before the earthshaker hurtling at them through the night.

Those who galloped to one side or the other escaped Elephant, but those who fled straight back could not run fast enough. Beasts and riders alike went down under the wide, swift-racing treads. Rolf looked back, but only once.

The cavalry company scattered or destroyed, Rolf crossed the highway. Seeing no more enemies before him, he pulled back on his left-hand lever, guiding Elephant through a thundering, jolting turn that brought him back onto the road. He followed the road westward, passing below the Castle. Now the enemy in the field seemed no more than scattered ants. As targets they were unworthy of his wrath, as long as the anthill itself was still standing, arrogant as ever.

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