Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

“And that we will do,” Thomas put in with great firmness. “Any questions? Remember what you’ve been told about the valkyries. Let’s move, the light is coming.” He gripped hands all round with his officers, and led the way toward the moored balloons.

Rolf trotted to take his place in the basket of the leading balloon. He felt weak in the knees, as usual before a fight, but he knew that it would pass. It crossed his mind as he and Gray were boarding their separate balloons that he had never seen the wizard sleep. If Gray felt any fatigue from his nightlong supervision of the djinn, he did not show it. Gray was compelling the djinn to accompany his balloon, and had even forced it somehow to dim the intensity of its fiery image; Rolf could see it like a floating patch of campfire embers in the shadow of the great hulking gasbag of Gray’s balloon, some thirty meters distant. Tests had shown that the lifting gas provided by the djinn would not burn, but the problem of arrow-proofing the bags had not been entirely solved. They were protected to some extent by draped sheets of chain-mail whose rings were lighter than metal, made, as were the bags themselves, of something that the djinn called plastic.

Rolf had argued at some length for using to the full the tremendous powers of the djinn, delaying the campaign as long as necessary to exercise its abilities and try out the results; it seemed to him that in a few months enough Old World arms, armor, and techniques might be acquired and understood to give the army an overwhelming advantage against the East.

But Gray had vetoed such a plan. “For two reasons. First, not all Old World devices will work now as neatly and reliably as they did in the Old World. This is true in particular of certain advanced weapons. I do not fully understand why this should be; but I have my means of knowledge, and it is so.”

“We could experiment – ”

“With devices far more perilous than balloons? No, I do not think that we are ready. The second reason, and perhaps the stronger”-here Gray paused for a moment, looking round as if to make sure that he was not overheard -“is the chance that our djinn will perish in this battle. We are facing Zapranoth, and such a blow is far from impossible.

It would leave us without help in operating and maintaining our Old World weapons. No. Better that we fight with means we understand, depending on no one but ourselves.”

Waiting now in the basket for the signal to ascend, Rolf grinned nervously at the impassive Mewick at his side. “Mewick, will you one day teach me to use weapons? “he asked in a low voice. It was something of an old joke between them, for Rolf at least. Mewick shook his head at Rolf in faint reproach and let his expression deepen into gloom.

The first balloons were loaded; the crews who were to do the launching were moving about briskly and capably in the gloom. Rolf did not see when Thomas gave the final signal for the attack, but those who were required to see did so. Two men standing by the mooring ropes each tugged and released a knot, and Rolf beheld the dim cliffside, ten meters from his face, begin abruptly to slide down in silence. Gray’s balloon kept pace, its basket rocking gently, the dim fire of the image of the djinn suspended near it. The line connecting Rolf’s balloon to Gray’s drew gently taut, then slackened again. The longer lines, that the next craft were to follow up, were paid out from their reels outside the baskets.

The edge of sky that Rolf could see past the bottom of his balloon was now brightening with a hint of dawn. Higher the two baskets swung, moving in the perfect silence of a dream, emerging now from the deeper shadows at the base of the cliffs, so that the rocky walls before them rapidly grew more distinct. Turning for a moment to the west, Rolf could see the plains and desert, night-bound still, stretching far into vague, retreating darkness. His homeland, and the ocean, would be visible from here by day. But there was no time now to think of that.

Up and up…

Rolf’s drawn sword snapped up in his hand to guard position, as the utter quiet was shattered by the strident cawing of a reptile. The creature had been dozing on the cliff face, a pebble’s toss from the balloons, and it had wakened to see the strange shapes soaring past. Sluggish with chill, wings laboring, it came out in a dark, slow explosion from the rocks, and fled them upward strainingly. Mewick and others who had their arrows nocked were quick to draw and loose at it, and it was hit but not brought down. Clamoring all the louder, it flew on up above the great gasbags and out of sight.

From somewhere farther up there came a slow-voiced, cawing answer, and then another, higher yet. Then there was silence once more, until it almost seemed that the citadel might have returned to sleep.

Up and up. The men hanging in the baskets, straining to see and hear, had little to say to one another. Rolf found himself gripping the wicker rim, inside the quilted armor-padding, trying to lift the craft into a faster climb. He could see Gray murmuring to the djinn.

Rolf was expecting that at any moment they would top the cliff, but they had not done so before there came sure proof that the enemy had awakened. It was a small squadron of reptiles on reconnaissance. Their cawing and snarling was heard above, and then the soft thumps of their bodies striking atop the gasbags. The craft continued to rise steadily. The mail of plastic links had proven too tough for reptilian teeth and claws, and their bodies were not weighty enough to hold down the balloons.

When the reptiles flew down below the bags to find the baskets, arrows and slung stones bit at them accurately. They screamed and raged and fled; some fell, transfixed by shafts, turned into weights with fluttering fringes dropping through the brightening sky.

Now came the first sign that Som’s fighting men were reacting to the attack. Rolf saw black-trimmed uniforms running on ledges on the cliffs. A slung stone thunked on the padding-armor right in front of him, and he crouched lower. A fur-clad Northman in Rolf’s basket loosed an arrow in reply, and on the cliff face a man dropped, toppled and slid on the steep slope, trying to cling to it with the shaft in him, plowing up a little avalanche.

Rolf knew they could not have much farther to ascend, but still the top came as a surprise. The cliff face fell back abruptly into a tableland, rough and split by many crevices, but essentially flat. At the rear of this horizontal reach, Som’s low-walled citadel sprawled, backed by the next leap upward of the mountain. Across the little distance that separated his balloon from Gray’s, Rolf heard the wizard barking orders to the djinn. The two balloons, each trailing a long spider-filament of line, slowed and stopped their ascent just above the rim of the cliff. Just here, almost beneath Rolf now, the narrow pass delivered the road it had caught up on the plain below.

Modest earthworks on one side of the debouching road defended the pass against a climbing army, and in fact formed the only real defense short of the citadel’s own walls. These works manned by half a hundred men might easily hold the road, it seemed, against Thomas’s four thousand, so great was their advantage of position. Ten or twelve men were in the trenches now, pulling on black helmets and gaping confusedly at the balloons. Their fortification offered no protection against attackers dropping from the sky.

Gray was smoothly ordering the operations of the djinn. Gas hissed from the bag above Rolf’s head; the basket he was riding skimmed rock, just in from the cliffs edge. He pitched out a metal grapple on a line, and leaped right after it. The balloon bobbed up with the removal of his weight; for a moment he stood there alone, the sole invader of Som’s stronghold. But in the moment it took him to catch the grapple and fix it in one of the many crevices in the rock, Mewick was standing beside him, short sword and battle-hatchet at the ready. Then with thudding sandals others were landing, at their right and left. Gray swung from his bobbing basket, agile as a youth. Across ten meters of empty ground the ten invaders faced the unfortified rear of the strong point that looked so indomitably down the pass; ten black-helmed Guardsmen, more or less, stared back as if uncertain they were real.

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