Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The riverside village was just ahead. Trees rushed by. Rolf bent, clinging desperately to the rods on Elephant’s head, as great branches whipped past just above him. Other trunks were flattened like grass before Elephant’s charge. A low retaining wall was trampled under the treads.

The scrape of Elephant’s rushing flanks dragged down the walls of houses. There seemed now to be no hand at all upon the reins.

Rolf saw then that the last steep plunge into the river was unavoidable, and that it was certain to throw him off. Just as Elephant tilted down the bank, he leaped clear. He jumped forward and to one side, as high and wide as he could, hoping for deep water where he came down. The red cylinder was still with him, held by its strap going around his body. His feet were just touching down on the calm surface of the Dolles as the great sheet of Elephant’s oceanic splash began to rise behind him.

The sound of Elephant’s plunge roared at him while he was underwater. The cylinder was now light enough to float and his treading water brought him easily to the surface. It seemed that the whole riverbed was still rocking, sloshing water like a hand-held basin, with the force of Elephant’s dive.

Elephant, half submerged, had come to a struggling, straining halt. Its forequarters were evidently forced against some underwater rock, some firm fixed.bone of earth. The endless driving treads still spun, like tail-swallowing snakes, flinging up gobs of mud and hurling ribbons of water, digging Elephant deeper into the bottom of the river.

Exhausted, Rolf struggled back toward the shore. In thigh-deep water he took a stand, and set to work again with his red cylinder. Until the cylinder at last ran empty, he kept the narrow gasping throat of Elephant filled with foam.

Not that breathing foam seemed to do metallic Elephant any harm. His voice was still as loud, its treads still spun as rapidly as ever. Rolf, though, was thinking of the inside of the cabin. In there, now, all the cool lights would be glowing still, glowing faintly through the solid insubstantial whiteness that was filling all the space there was, filling eye and ear and nose and lung….

When the cylinder was emptied Rolf dropped it from his deadened arms and let it drift away. He had only just strength enough left to get himself ashore. Once ashore he lay in the mud, hardly able to lift his head at the sound of running feet. He knew his friends as they came in sight. Down the long trail of foam and through the shattered village they had followed him, though Elephant’s mad descent had left them far behind. They were gathering around Rolf now in the morning twilight, lifting him up and crying out the triumph that he was too weak to shout.

It was about noon on that day when Elephant suddenly died – or once more fell asleep. At any rate the droning voice coughed once or twice and ceased, and with it ceased the endless mindless working of the treads. Instantly the gentle river healed over its torn surface, leaving only one ripple-scar bent around the motionless metal hulk. Those who were standing guard first backed away, then crept closer. But still the round door that they were watching never opened.

When Rolf woke up, near sunset, they told him about Elephant. Rolf was up in the Castle when he awoke. He vaguely remembered being helped back up the hill by men only just less weary than he was; he did not even remember lying down to sleep.

There was other news. The troops who had been coming to Ekuman’s reinforcement from outposts scattered throughout the Broken Lands had turned and fled when they saw the Castle lost, and heard from their scouts that the Satrap himself was dead. All of Ekuman’s high commanders were fled or fallen. More important, not one of the visiting Satraps had escaped; so with today’s one blow, all the powers of the East here along the seaboard had been shaken. And here in the Broken Lands, farmers and villagers had seen victory in a sky that was for the first time in years empty of reptiles; and the people were hunting the remnants of Ekuman’s army or driving them on into the eastern desert.

After enjoying a meal from what had been meant as Ekuman’s festive table, Rolf mounted to the Castle’s battlements to take a turn as lookout. The high roofs and walls had been cleaned of the last reptile’s corpse, and the last bleaching bones of the reptiles’ victims had been removed for burial. Now on all the roosts were birds, beginning to stir with the sunset; Rolf could pick out Strijeef, stretching his bandaged wing.

Rolf turned in all directions, looking out over the battlements. It seemed to him odd that the new air of freedom should be invisible over distant swamps and farms, villages and roads, the pass, the desert, the Oasis of the Two Stones.

The Thunderstone was safe, though the Prisoner’s Stone had not yet been found. Nor had Char-mian.

Looking from the roof-terrace into what had been the Presence Chamber, Rolf could see that Sarah was still there. There were many wounded now for her and the other women to tend; but still she spent as much time as she could beside one pallet. Nils still lived. And Mewick still lived, and even walked a bit, though he bore five or six wounds and had been drenched in his own blood.

And Chup survived – or half of him, at least. He lay on one of the pallets that had been set in rows in the Presence Chamber. Most of the time he kept his arms raised to cover his face. His legs and all below his waist were dead, unmovable, since Mewick’s hatchet had at last come looping around his guard and bitten at his spine.

Sarah’s eyes would not meet Rolf’s. He turned away and looked down into the courtyards. Thomas, his broad shouldered figure tirelessly erect, was down there directing the building of a temporary barrier across the breach that Elephant had made in the outer Castle wall. If some surviving band of the enemy should think to take surprise revenge, they would not take the leader of the Free Folk unaware.

Though Thomas was ceaselessly giving orders, still he did not hesitate to stoop and lift a timber himself. A girl Rolf did not know, wearing a wide Oasis farmer’s hat, was staying close to Thomas’s side. And there was yellow-haired Manka, stewing food in a huge caldron -and there stood Loford, displaying a bright bandage around the upper girth of his right arm.

Rolf had a bandage too, over the wound on his back. A dozen smaller hurts all throbbed and nagged. But these discomforts were no burden now; other things, more lasting, had happened to him.

He still had no clue to what had happened to his sister Lisa; he no longer had a real hope that he would ever learn her fate.

His fingers kept straying to the inner pocket of his shirt, to touch the knot of golden hair concealed there. He would speak of the charm to Loford-yes, when he had a chance.

Alone on the battlements Rolf stood the day’s last lookout, gazing levelly across the desert. The mountains of the East were black even now, with the rays of the setting sun thrown full upon them.




Tall Broken Man

The great demon came to Chup in the middle of an autumn night of howling wind. It came in the midst of a torrent of air, whose vortices rose seemingly within a single gasp or howl of attaining life; it came with a blast that shook thup’s hovel of a shelter, pitched against the inside of the Castle wall. Lying sleepless with the nagging of his ever-painful wound, for many nights, Chup had heard time and again the screaming passage of things that from their sound were on the verge of becoming elemen-tals of the air. So it was that he paid little heed to the demon’s first shaking of his lean-to.

But soon the shaking grew more violent. A prolonged pounding against one end of his little shelter bounced its crooked boards against the wall of enormous stones. Raising his upper body on his elbows, Chup looked down the length of his paralyzed legs in the direction of the sound. And he saw, like smoke flowing through the crevices of his patchwork dwelling, the demon coming in.

Involuntarily he stiffened. The thing from the East would have been his ally, in his days of power; what business it might have with him now he did not know. And even a strong man, thinking demons were his allies-even such a man, when a demon came to him at midnight, and at hardly more than arm’s length distance, might know himself strong indeed if he resisted the urge to run, or to cover his eyes and flatten himself on the ground.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred