Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Rolf was running down the stair already, Thomas at his side demanding, “Will the Elephant obey him?”

“I learned very quickly how to give Elephant orders. And now it is already awake.”

On impulse Rolf turned aside from the stair at the level of the Presence Chamber. He came to a halt in the middle of the huge, once-splendid room. Across the floor the path of the thunderbolt, was etched black, zig-zagging slightly through patches of persistent foam….

With a bound Rolf was standing on the throne, reaching to take down from the wall the twin of the red cylinder that Ekuman had used in putting out the fire. It was not heavy.

Thomas was still right at his side. “Will that thing stop the Elephant? I doubt if the Thunderstone itself could do so.”

“Nothing that I know can stop the Elephant.” Rolf spoke with conviction. “It can batter down this keep, I think, if the driver’s arms don’t get too tired to work the levers back and forth. But I may be able to blind the Elephant for a little while. Maybe long enough for our people to get to some high mountain, or else back to the swamps.”

Rolf had thrown down his sword. As he started down the stairs he was already slinging the red cylinder across his back by the leather strap that had been made to hold it on the wall.

Once sealed inside the Elephant, Ekuman could slow down, think, and be cautious. There must be dismay and uproar among the rebels outside who had seen him enter, but here there was no sound but the grumbling drone of the mysterious power under his feet, and his own heavy breathing. With steady hands he approached and then touched the strange lights around him, so bright and yet so cool. His nerves felt very good, now that there was nothing left for him to lose.

He soon noticed that someone had recently been sitting in the central chair, cracking and flattening the ancient cushions. He knew who had occupied this seat more powerful than a throne -he had been watching from the roof-terrace when Chup forced Rolf out of the Elephant. He had recognized the same youth, outwardly no more than a peasant, who had been involved in Charmian’s petty intrigue – and who, during questioning, had suddenly risen from his knees and looked Ekuman fearlessly in the eye. “I am Ardneh,” the boy had said, and then it was as if he had thrown the thunderbolt with his right hand.

But the Satrap Ekuman had survived the bolt, as he had so far survived all of Ardneh’s blows. And now the throne of Elephant’s power was Ekuman’s. Whether Ardneh was only a symbol or something more, Ekuman meant to crush him yet.

He let his weight down, gingerly, into the chair where Rolf had sat. Nothing happened but the rising of a small cloud of dust, prosaic and somehow reassuring. Now he could perceive the vision-ring, and marveled at it.

And now, cautiously but steadily, he reached to touch the drive levers. They were the obvious places for a man sitting here to put his hands.

Rolf ran out through the open doorway of the deep, jumping over bodies and debris. He was just in time to see Elephant make its first slow tentative movements under the control of its new master. He dodged through the ravaged courtyard, trying to keep the red cylinder as much as possible behind him, so that Ekuman might not see it and know what Rolf intended. Whether Ekuman saw Rolf coming or not, Elephant gave a sudden grinding lurch and freed itself of the ruins of the tower, then with a mumbling roar went backing out of the breach it had created in the wall.

Elephant vanished from Rolf’s sight, but the noise of Elephant receded only a little way; and when he had run up to the debris of the fallen tower he saw the huge vague armored shape standing motionless a little way ahead, as if waiting for him, on the road that curved down toward the village.

Rolf knew that the new driver could not yet have much sureness of control. He ran straight toward the Elephant, and Ekuman made it roar and lurch toward him. He waited until the mighty circling treads were almost upon him, until they were shaking the ground violently under his feet; then he sprang out of the way and turned and ran in at Elephant’s flank.

Before the metal beast could pass him, Rolf’s hands and feet had found the tiny inset steps and he was climbing toward its head. Ekuman made a sudden turn off the road and onto the rougher slope. The move came very near throwing Rolf off, but he clung on grimly, the red cylinder dragging on his back. He leaned his weight outward on the door handle when he reached it, but of course Ekuman had latched the door inside -and Ekuman had no Prisoner’s Stone with him to betray him now.

When Ekuman reversed his turn, Rolf was able to shift his grip, and with a desperate upward lunge to seize one of the rods projecting from the front of Elephant’s head. In another moment he was able to pull himself up onto that head. Sitting on the topmost hump, he contrived to grip the projecting rods with his legs, so that his arms were free to bring around the red cylinder from his back. He gripped the black snout of it and aimed it as he had seen the Satrap do, and the fingers of his right hand found the trigger. He played the jet from the nozzle over the tiny insect-eyes that were spaced around Elephant’s head. The foam as it went splattering away was the color of nothingness in the dead light of pre-dawn morning.

The stuff would not cling to Elephant’s eyes as Rolf had hoped it would. The metal and unbreakable glass were very smooth, and with Elephant’s jouncing motion and the wind of his rush the foam fell quickly away. Still, Elephant’s eyes were covered as long as Rolf kept playing the jet on them. Ekuman would not be able to see where he was going, let alone hunt down running targets; Rolf remembered, from his own time in the saddle, how dust, and falling stones, and liquid fire, had each momentarily blinded Elephant.

Ekuman, who could do nothing else till he had thrown Rolf off, kept Elephant stopping, starting, turning, going down the long slope toward the bottom of the pass. The red cylinder kept on spewing foam at a tremendous rate. Rolf swept the nozzle in a circle, trying to keep foam covering the eyes in the back of Elephant’s head as well as those in the front. When he took a moment to lift his own eyes, he could see numbers of Free Folk scattering and streaming away from the Castle. He was giving them a chance to fight again someday -to fight against a Satrap who rode the Elephant, and the forces that such a man could rally to him.

But Rolf had no time now to lament the bitter future. Elephant’s turning, twisting run down into the pass continued, with maneuvers that grew more violent as Ekuman gained a better feel of the controls. Several times Rolf was nearly thrown off, had to drop the nozzle of his foam-thrower and use both hands to save himself. But each time he recovered in a moment, and once more covered Ekuman’s eyes.

Ekuman suddenly abandoned his weaving tactics, and turned for a straight run west. He must have had a few moments of clear vision, enough to give him some idea of directions, but still he chose a course that would soon bring him through the outskirts of the village and ultimately to the river. Was the Satrap grown so desperate to rid himself of Rolf that he would risk the miring of his heavy mount in mud and water? Why?

The red cylinder gushed on as if it could never empty itself. Now in the first forelightening of dawn the foam covering the great hump of Elephant’s head was white, a white hood spreading and streaming continuously down to hide the eyes. And now Rolf noticed a curious thing; at one small spot, right at the back of Elephant’s head, the foam instead of being blown away was rushing inward -as if Elephant’s nose was there, and he continually, inhaled. And Rolf then remembered the circulation of fresh air inside with the door shut tight.

He twisted around as well as he could on his difficult, bouncing perch, aiming his jet of foam to keep that gasping nostril covered, even if he must let the eyes in front begin to see again.

Rushing at full speed now down the western slope, Elephant raised its bellowing voice to its loudest roar. Though its eyes were now uncovered it still weaved like a blinded beast. Rolf was bounced back and forward and up and down, bruising his lean bones. He clung on, somehow, and kept his foam-nozzle aimed at the little orifice that sucked so greedily for air. When he looked back he saw that Elephant, like some sickened animal, was now leaving a continuous trail of dropping. A line of foam was dribbling like dung from somewhere under its belly.

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