Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

No, here was one Castle-man who had stuck bravely to his post -or else had simply been too slow in taking flight. He was under some rocks, now. His protruding hand still clutched a sword; Rolf bent to take it and found that he must pry the spasmed fingers loose.

He had just got the weapon for himself when Chup came into sight around Elephant’s forequar-ters, stepping over wreckage. The warrior chief had evidently given up trying to follow Rolf’s magical exit and had backed out of Elephant through the ordinary door. Rolf had no time now to puzzle over how Chup had opened that door in the first place.

“There you are, young one!” Chup’s voice sounded almost jovial, but he moved carefully as he came toward Rolf. Even Chup was wary of one who had mastered the Elephant’s power. “My infant gladiator-a precocious wizard also, it seems. Come now, you have fought well, you have fought like a giant, but you have lost. Give me the spell, the rein, the whip, whatever it is you use to bridle this monster to your will.”

Rolf wasted no breath on words, only bent and picked up a rock with his left hand, meanwhile holding his borrowed sword ready in his right. Now some of the shouting voices were coming very close, sounding from just outside the ruined gap where the gate had been, the gap now half-blocked by the tilted Elephant.

Chup was staying between Elephant and Rolf. Rolf retreated a little deeper into the courtyard, to get his feet on flat ground rather than the rubble of the tower.

Chup was going to tolerate no stalling; he came at Rolf steadily and quickly. There would be no getting away; the light wound on Rolf’s back reminded him that the Prisoner’s Stone gave no protection against a blade. Rolf threw his rock as best he could left-handed, and lunged straight in behind it with his point. He saw the rock bounce from Chup’s raised shield, and then Rolfs sword was knocked from his grip by a short parry of such violence that it numbed his hand. Chup came charging like a human Elephant, and down Rolf went. He knew his life was spared only because his secret must be learned; Chup’s demon-masked figure towered over him, Chup’s swordpoint rested at Rolf’s beltline.

“Now give the secret of this Elephant to me! Or I will slowly – ”

The screech of a battle-cry warned Chup, sent him spinning around only just in time as Mewick came leaping at him. Mewick was carrying no shield but matched the short sword in his right hand with a basket-hilled hatchet in his left.

Rolf managed to roll away. He saw Chup somehow weathering the first assault, giving a little ground, then standing and fighting back. Sword and shield, sword and hatchet, rang together in a blur of speed, separated briefly, clashed again on a higher level of violence.

Now there were more of the Free Folk coming in around Elephant’s bulk, through the gap that had been the gateway. And bronze-helmeted soldiers from within the Castle were rallying to meet them. Amid the confusion Rolf crawled over the littered earth, trying to get back to Elephant, whose belly-voice droned on beneath the growing clamor of the fight. But he found bronze helmets always in his way. He couldn’t fight his way through to Elephant without a weapon. Where was the sword Chup had knocked from his hand? It seemed that he could never manage to keep a sword.

Dodging and jumping to keep himself alive, Rolf worked his way around the fringe of the melee to a point from which he could see that Elephant’s door still hung invitingly open. He tried to shout to some of the Free Folk to enter it, but the din of battle drowned his voice. And none of them had ever even seen Elephant before -small wonder if they did not rush to climb into the noisy cave of its inside.

Rolf at last managed to grab another weapon from another fallen soldier’s hand. But then, as for fighting his way through, he had all that he could do to defend himself against the nearest of the soldier’s mates. This opponent had nothing like Chup’s power and skill, but he was still less of a novice with the sword than Rolf. Rolf found himself being forced farther from the breached wall and the Elephant.

His duel reached no clean conclusion; he and his opponent were swept apart by the confused, headlong retreat of the soldiers to an inner courtyard. Knocked to the ground again, Rolf played dead while the throng stampeded over him. He had a moment in which to wonder if all battles were as mad and stupidly desperate as this one. When the rush had stopped and he raised his head he found that his friends were in possession of the field around him.

All was not well, though. The last of the Free Folk to come pelting through the ruined gateway were not charging forward, but rather in retreat. Right on their heels there sounded trumpet calls, and a thunder of arriving hooves-cavalry, and in substantial force.

The first few of the riders entered the courtyard, but their mounts stumbled in the ruins of the tower, and shied from the Elephant and from the burning timbers that lay about. Thomas rallied his men to hold back the cavalry at the gate. The enemy dismounted, and with leveled lances held the breach from their side -held the Elephant too, though none of them would touch it. The hundred fighters who had rushed in with Thomas were now effectively trapped inside the Castle. Cheers echoed back and forth, between Ekuman’s men at the gate and their mates atop the keep.

The thicket of lances defending Elephant looked impenetrable. “Toward the keep, then!” Thomas shouted, making a quick decision. Before Rolf could reach his side to argue, the Free Folk were charging deeper into the Castle, and Rolf could do nothing but join them. His sword remained unblooded, for the charge met little resistance until it had swept the warren of walls and sheds up to the forbidding mass of the keep itself. At that point the Free Folk met doors as strong as the outer gate had been, closed and barred against them. And missiles began to drop on them from above.

This courtyard held many carts and other objects under which men might shelter. Rolf had just scrambled under a cart, panting, when a big man with a sword in hand came crashing down beside him. Turning, Rolf recognized Thomas.

Laboring for breath like Rolf, Thomas demanded, “The Elephant’s wrecked? Crippled?”


“No? Then what demon possessed you that you left it?”

“The demon Chup. He got the door open -I don’t know how-”

Thomas groaned. “Never mind how. But the enemy can use the Elephant, then? It’ll obey them if they dare to try?”

“It might.” Rolf started trying to explain the controls.

“All right, all right. Then we must just get you back into it. Take good care of your life until we do. What’s that? The birds! There’s a distraction for us, if we can use it!”

A mighty polyphonic shrieking had burst up from the high places of the Castle. The defensive system of nets and cords, probably weakened by the fall of the tower beside the gate, was now under heavy assault by birds, who seemed to be carrying some edged weapons for the work. Sections of severed net came sagging and dangling into the courtyards, brushing Thomas’s men as he led them out in another charge against the outer gate.

There was too much fire there for the birds to be of help. And in the light of burning timbers the backs of the Free Folk were exposed to the missiles that now hailed more thickly from the roof of the keep. And the dismounted lancers’ long weapons, pointed as thick as hedgethorns into the yard, still formed a wall proof against sword and mace and farmer’s pitchfork. “Back! Back inside!” Thomas bawled out.

Once more they scrambled panting into the relative shelter of the inner court. Now Thomas cried out, “Find a timber! We must breakin the door of the keep!” And at last the desperation was plain in his voice. This door would sturdily resist the biggest ram that men might lift; and the missiles would keep coming down from above; and, given time, Ekuman could summon more reinforcements.

Rolf felt the weight of the Prisoner’s Stone, still inside his shirt. It was no help in breaking in a door…

There came a sudden flash of understanding. Rolf seized Thomas by the sleeve, at the same time holding up the Stone of Freedom. “It was this that opened the door for Chup, when I was in the Elephant! No doors will hold, that guard whoever holds this Stone!”

Thomas stared at him blankly for just a moment, then understood. He raised his arm and signaled urgently, calling down a bird.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred