Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

He thought of turning Elephant straight uphill, charging at the Castle wall by the shortest route. But despite himself he was dissuaded by remembering the awesome thickness of those high, gray walls, the hugeness of the slabs of stone that formed their base. In his concentration of fury and joy, he scarcely noticed excited birds come sailing round him and depart again. No, he would take the Castle at its weakest point. He would ride the highway into the village, and turn onto the road that led up to the gate through which he had once been dragged behind an animal.

Let the teeth of that portcullis bite down upon him now!

Thomas stood halfway down the northern slope of the pass, straining his eyes to see through the night, and heard the mighty voice and tread of Elephant go past.

“Where’s he going now?” Thomas demanded of a bird who hovered near. “Tell him to wait, till I can talk with him!” Tonight, naturally, the Silent People were Thomas’s eyes and communications system. Thanks to them, he held in his mind a picture of the battlefield very nearly as complete as Rolf’s view through the vision-ring. To Thomas, accustomed to thinking in tactical terms, it was obvious that Elephant’s first charge had outflanked the enemy in the field, cutting them off from the Castle and completing their demoralization, begun by the night itself. The Elephant with its demonstrated night-vision, speed, and invulnerable strength, seemed quite capable of mopping up the enemy, completing their scattering, sending the survivors fleeing in exhaustion and panic into the river or the desert to be hunted down later by Thomas’s own rested men….

But Rolf was simply driving along the road.

Strijeef came dropping out of the sky, crying, “We cannot speak to him! Elephant seems to have no ears, though its eyes must be as good as mine!”

Thomas demanded, “Where’s he going? It sounds like he’s in the village now.”

“He is.” Strijeef rose higher, looked again, cried out, “He turns with the road! He’s going up toward the Castle!”

After thinking for a moment, Thomas ordered, “Thenyou and the otherbirds gather all ourpeople to me, here, as nearly as you can. If Rolf can’t hear us-well, he who can’t take orders must be the leader, if he fights.”

Rolf was not yet expert at guiding Elephant through sharp turns; though he passed through the village at a moderate speed, a brush of Elephant’s flank still tumbled one deserted-looking house. He saw no people tumbling with the house; the village seemed already depopulated. He was soon out of it, on the road that climbed upward to the Castle. The great gate at the road’s end was open, a company of fleeing foot soldiers pouring into it; the last man was barely in before it was pushed shuti Now the bars as thick as tree trunks would be dropping into place to hold it fast. Let them work at making their defenses all secure. Yes, let them think that they were safe.

With the drive levers only half-forward, Elephant came up the ascending road at the pace of a trotting man. The Castle walls grew. Even now, Rolf felt a shadow of his old awe at their size. Now the defensive towers that flanked the great gate seemed to be leaning almost over his head, their height reaching the blind spot that the vision-ring left directly above.

Still, as he halted a little distance from the gate, he could see that there were men atop the towers. Arrows and slung rocks began to spray down over him. Elephant did not notice such things; Rolf could scarcely hear them. He urged Elephant forward, thinking to request admittance, and the men above began to pour some sort of liquid fire; Elephant minded it no more than rain.

There was no room on the small level space before the Castle to build up headlong speed. Still, at Elephant’s first knocking, the iron teeth of the portcullis bent in like so many straws, and the great gate itself sagged in with timbers cracked and splintered. Elephant was stopped from pushing through not by the gate’s strength but only by its narrowness; the broad bulk of Rolf’s mount was caught and held by the towers on either side.

The burning liquid from above came pouring in an orange glow across Elephant’s eyes, then dribbled harmlessly away, leaving Rolf’s view as good as ever. Rolf pulled his levers back, backing Elephant up. He wondered briefly that the gate should be able to resist him, with the Prisoner’s Stone still in his pocket. But it occurred to him that he was a prisoner no longer; he was trying to break in, not out. Delicately he worked his levers, turning Elephant slightly to the right, aiming him head-on at the tower on that side. He charged again.

The massive tower stopped Elephant, and sent Rolf sliding unsuspecting forward in his seat. His forehead struck against the inner surface of the vision-ring. He was half-stunned for a moment, then roused to a fury of frustrated anger. Growling and muttering, he hauled back the levers. Elephant, quite unhurt, responded; when they had backed up Rolf saw with satisfaction that several of the great stones in the tower’s base had been shifted and loosened. The battered gate was now leaning more crookedly than before, and its timbers were beginning to burn from spatterings of liquid fire.

Again Rolf charged, hurling Elephant’s brute power against the strength of the gigantic masonry.

This time he braced his legs as strongly as he could against the lower part of the panel before him, setting himself to meet the impact. More stones caved in, like teeth before a club. Working in a cold rage, Rolf again and again drew Elephant back, and again and again rammed him forward. Elephant did not tire or weaken. Parapet-stones began to tumble, from atop the shaken tower, and now fell jumbled with contorted men and bundles of unshot arrows and a spilling cauldron of the liquid fire. Ekuman, where are you? Hide in a bigger tower than this, or burrow into your deepest dungeon, if you will. Ardneh has come to find you out!

The impact of the next charge burst in the gate completely, sending burning timbers bounding and spinning with seeming slowness across the deserted yard. But still the towers stood, narrowing the gap enough to keep Elephant from passing through.

Elephant’s last charge at the damaged tower did not come to a sudden stop. Instead it lurched on through a long satisfying yielding grinding thunder of collapse. Elephant’s eyes were covered for a time -first by rebounding blocks of stone, and after that by a fog of dust so thick that no bird or machine might see through it. Covering his ears with hands and arms, Rolf bent over in his seat, hearing the tower come falling on his head.

His progress having ground at last to a halt, Elephant stood tilted somewhat on one side, his belly-voice droning on imperturbably. Rolf had just regained a firm seat in his chair, and was reaching for the drive levers, when he was surprised to feel a new current of air come swirling around him. The draft brought with it outside noises and the smell of rock-dust. He turned to look back at the door and saw with utter astonishment that it was open. A warrior stood there. His garments and his helm and shield were black and red; he held his sword out in a half-extended arm, so that the point was scarce a meter from Rolf’s heart. The warrior’s face was hidden in a barbut helm, black with a demon-mask outlined on it in red; Rolf had not a moment’s doubt that this was Chup.

Even Chup, entering the Elephant for the first time, must pause for an instant in sheer awe and bewilderment. And in that instant Rolf slid from his chair on the side away from the sword.

The sword came flicking quickly after him. But the Stone of Freedom was still inside Rolf’s pocket, and even now it opened a way out for him. A panel whose existence he had never guessed swung open in the floor beside him. A head-first dive into the dark space thus revealed took him into a cramped place surrounded by strange heavy machinery. Even as the panel closed itself over his head, the surface on which he was crouching parted, made way for him to exit. He wiggled out, straight through a solid slab of armor thicker than a man; the metal sealed itself perfectly again behind him.

He was sprawled on one of the stones of the fallen tower, lying half under Elephant’s tilted body. Dust still hung thick and choking in the air. There was some light to see by, from wood amid the ruins caught ablaze by the spilled fire.

Here, Elephant’s voice was deafeningly loud; but as Rolf slid out from under the tilted bulk he could hear shouts in the middle distance. He rose to a crouch, looking this way and that for some kind of weapon; Chup would be on him at any moment. At least there were no other soldiers in sight; Chup’s degree of courage seemed unique among the defenders of the Castle.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred