Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“I must make sure you understand me when I speak of our search for the life of Zapranoth. Now that we are on the march and can hope that spies have been left behind us, I can speak somewhat more freely. If you understand it may be that you can help, and if you help we may still succeed, and if we succeed in slaying the Demon-Lord of the Black Mountains it will count for more than would grinding the walls of Som’s citadel to powder. Depend on that.

“Now. When I speak of finding a demon’s life, I do not mean his active presence but his essence, secret and vulnerable -what the Old World seems to have called the soul. A demon’s soul is separable in space from his personality. It is invisible, impalpable, and of vital importance, for only through it can he be destroyed. To keep his soul safe, he may hide it in any innocent thing: a flower, a tree, a human’s hair, a rock, the foam of the sea, aspiderweb. He may keep it far away from him, where his enemies will not think to look for it, or near at hand where he will more easily know when it is threatened, and take steps in its defense. What is it?”

One of the fur-garbed Northmen got to his feet. “Is not Som the Dead the viceroy of the East, in the Black Mountains? And the Demon-Lord only his subordinate? Well, then. It would seem to me Zap-ranoth’s life must be in Som’s control.”

Gray shook his head. “We think not. Those who rule the Empire of the East would not care to give any underling as much power as Som would have if Zapranoth were absolutely at his mercy. Therefore they have given Som only a lesser power of punishment over the Demon-Lord; so the two of them are constrained to eye each other jealously. It is a common pattern in the organization of the East.”

Thomas and other senior leaders nodded. The man from the north sat down, and one from the south, from Mewick’s country, asked: “If you wizards are baffled, trying to get at Zapranoth, how are we supposed to help?”

“How? First, understand the great importance of our search. Then, if our campaigning takes you among strangers, friendly or neutral-seeming, say nothing of this matter, but listen carefully for any hint that there is information to be had. We will pay for it. We make no broadcast offers of reward, or half the fools and swindlers in the world would come to clog our path and waste our time, with spies and agents of the East among them. The chance that you will hear any clue is doubtless very small; but we must take every chance that we can get. Our search is desperate.”

Gray took his seat, and Thomas rose. “Any more questions on our magic? Then let’s go on to something else.” He looked round as if gauging the temper of his hearers before continuing. “Though we are a real army now, it will be plain to all of you that our numbers are insufficient to storm any citadel as strong as Som’s. You must know also that I have sent far afield, to every source of Western strength we are aware of, looking for help. You have been asking yourselves, and me, who may be sending troops to help us and where we are to meet them. The answer is: no troops are coming, or very few. We go on this campaign with no more men than we have now. Yet we are attacking the Black Mountains.”

Thomas paused there, with every eye fixed on him intently. There was no murmur in the tent, but rather a deep hush; somewhere in the camp outside a blacksmith was shouting coarse imprecations at an animal.

He went on. “After, we make a feint to the north and perhaps a few skirmishes there with Som’s outlying garrisons. In the Black Mountains is his power rooted, and only there can it be destroyed.”

Someone urged: “Wait for the spring, then, for the birds’ help! We cannot scale Som’s cliffs against him. The birds could lift rope ladders for us, scout, bear messages, drop rocks upon the enemy, and use their talons, too!”

Thomas shook his head inflexibly and the murmur of approval that had started up died down. “We thought once that the Silent People might have stayed; we would have tried to warm them through the winter; but it is written in their bone-marrow, it seems, that they must fly south each autumn. There was nothing we or they could do about it. However, if the birds of the West will be absent from this campaign, at least the reptiles of the East will be sluggish and thick-blooded. And it is all very well to say, wait for spring, for the Silent People to fly north again. But so might Som be stronger then. And what of this human army we have gathered here and now? Shall we sit on our tails for another half year, hoping for improvement in our luck?”

That got something of the response Thomas must have hoped for. Folding his arms before him once again, he went on in a mildervoice. “As forgetting at Som in his citadel, we think that we have found a way. Gray?”

Once more the wizard arose, and spoke. As the plan he was proposing became clear, they cast looks at one another across the circle, with slowly lengthening faces. When the wizard paused, there were no questions. Probably, Rolf thought, because the only ones that came to mind were bluntly insulting about Gray’s sincerity or sanity.

“As I said before, we are now on the march, away from prying eyes. Now the time has come to test what I propose, and if the test succeeds, to practice it. It will not be a usable technique till it is given considerable practice.”

The stunned silence continued. Thomas dismissed the meeting, and while the others were filing out, called Rolf to one side where he stood with Gray. “Rolf. You have more experience with technology than anyone else we know of in our army. Gray will need an assistant in the project he just spoke of. I think you could do a good job of helping him.”

Rolf grunted. “I don’t know much, really.”

“You have a knack.” Thomas clapped both their shoulders, and said to Gray: “Take him, if you will, as your helper for the first experiment.” Then Thomas turned quickly away, answering voices that were already calling him to see about some other business.

Gray and Rolf were left confronting each other in what was apparently a mutual lack of confidence. “Tell me, young one,” the tall wizard said at last, “what do you know about the djinn?”

“Much like demons, are they not?”

Gray’s gaze grew harder. “Mayyou never be called upon to suffer in proportion to your ignorance of the world! Djinn are no more like demons than men are like the talking reptiles.”

Continuing to talk Gray led Rolf from the tent. “Demons are, without exception, of the East. But the djinn are rather like elementals, neither good nor evil in themselves, and a human may call on them without being corrupted or consumed thereby.”

“I see.” Rolf nodded, not seeing much. “But what has this to do with technology, and the scheme you were proposing?” They were walking now through the uneven rows of tents, Gray heading for the outskirts of the camp.

“Just this. The djinn I plan to call upon for help is unique, so far as I know, among his kind. He is a technologist, a builder and designer, I think superior in those fields to any human who has lived since the Old World. Now help me with some preparations, if you will.”

It seemed to Rolf that he had little choice. Besides, the djinn as Gray described him was certainly intriguing.

They had got past the tents now, to a place near the camp’s edge, not far from the latrines. It was a clear, open area perhaps fifty meters across, badly illuminated by a couple of torches on poles stuck in the ground. Rolf had earlier heard casual speculation that the place was being kept reserved for some magical purpose. Near its center was tethered a sullen-looking loadbeast wearing panniers that were bulky but did not seem heavy. From these Rolf and the wizard gathered bags and parcels which Gray opened on the sand. From them in turn he took small objects which, Rolf again helping as directed, he set out on the ground in a regular and careful pattern. The things looked to Rolf for the most part like toys for some carpenter’s child: there were miniature hammers, wooden wheels, a tiny saw, small brace and bit, and other little tools.

“Rolf, once you rode upon an Old World vehicle that moved across the land without a beast to pull it; you learned its secrets of control, and rode it into battle.”

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