Excepting Rolf and Gray, the aerial troops had been hand-picked for guts and viciousness, and those proved first in fighting skill had been selected for the first balloons. The struggle for the earthwork began without an order, in the space of one short breath, and it was over in the time one might draw a long breath and release a sigh; only one fighter of the West had been cut down. Rolf sprang forward with the rest, but all the enemy were slaughtered before he had a chance to strike a blow. Still gripping his unmarred sword he turned to Gray; the towering wizard with a motion of his arm was already sending out the signal of green fire, bright as a small sun in the morning sky, leaping and shining in the air above the pass.
Rolf turned and cried out: “Sound the horn!” A Northman, blood from a scalp wound running in his eyes, had the twisting beast-horn already at his lips; he gave a nod, and winded it with all his might.
Sheathing his weapon, Rolf ran back to his balloons, made them secure with double grapples, and deciding where the second pair should land. He was none too soon, for they were close below and rising rapidly. When they arrived, he helped to land them, pulling on the thin ropes that the first balloons had trailed, while theirfierce passengers leaped out and set themselves to hold the pass and landing place. Rolf stayed at the landing place, seeing that the new balloons were tied down, and looking for the next. When he glanced toward the citadel, he heard alarms and signals there, and saw folk running on the wails, and reptiles in a sluggish swarm above them. The main gates had been open, and still were; at any moment a force must sally out to push the Westerners from the cliff. Rolf looked the other way, down the road that became a twisty ribbon marking the bottom of the pass, but the army of the West was still invisible. It would be hours before their legs could bring them to this height.
In the earthworks, men had already methodically separated the slaughtered Guardsmen’s heads from their bodies, gathered the freed collars and thrown them down the cliff; the valkyries, coming down from the high mountain, hovered and sniffed but could find no one to save. Rolf and the others, taught by Gray to expect the flying things, still stared at them, Rolf with particular fascination.
“Demons!” someone called out. It was not an expletive, but a warning.
Faces turned to Gray. He had already seen the disturbances in the air a little way from the citadel, hanging low, more like the roiling of heat above fires than like rainclouds. Opening his satchel, he pulled out of it a flowery little vine, wrapped as if for sustenance around a piece of damp and maggoty wood. In Gray’s other hand was a silvery-gleaming knife.
As the two presences drifted nearer in the lower air, sweeping reptiles in a timid swarm before them. Gray brought the blade near the tender, innocent green tendrils of the vine. He muttered a few words in a low voice-and cut.
Silver flashed in the sky above the citadel, like a reflection or mirage of an enormous axe. The blow that struck one of the demons came in utter silence, but was irresistable nonetheless; its image in the air split in two spinning halves. Gray scarcely looked up; his hands, those of a gardener, kept at their work, severing and plucking leaf from stem, slicing, splitting, and demolishing the vine. Gray breathed upon the rotten wood, and green flame sprouted from it. In unburned hands he held it up, watching the clean flame devour the clinging fragments of the petals, leaves and stems. “Yiggul,” he said with feeling, “trouble our fair world no more.” And he chanted verses in a language Rolf did not know.
Fire burned now in the sky as well consuming the scattered pieces of the demon. Its companion paused in his advance, but then came drifting on again.
“Now, Kion, let us say farewell to you.” Gray reached into his satchel once more.
The roiling disturbance in the air, the size of a small house, shook for a moment as if with fear or rage, then came toward Gray like a hurled missile. Some of the men around the wizard threw up their arms or ducked their heads; others, just as uselessly, raised shield and blade. Gray shot forth his arm, and the object he had pulled from his satchel-it looked like some trinket of cheap metal -was held above the chunk of burning wood. The hurtling demon was transformed into a ball of glowing heat. Rolf heard, more in his mind than in his ears, a scream of pain beyond anything he had yet heard upon a field of war. Kion’s course was bent from what he had intended. He struck the earth far from the Western men, spattering flames and rock about his point of impact, where he left a molten scar; he bounded up again, twisting and spinning like an unguided firework, and all the while the scream went on unbreathingly, and Gray’s unburning hand continued to hold the bauble in the fire. The metal of it, tin or lead mayhap, melted in beautiful silvery drops that fell into the flame and there unnaturally disappeared. And as the bauble melted, so diminished the fireball that had been the mighty demon Kion, flashing madly from one part of the sky to another until it vanished in a final streak of brilliancy.
Gray pressed his hand down on the fiercely burning wood, and it went out like a candle. “What are these others here?” Gray asked in a low voice. “Do they propose to try our strength, after what we have just done?” Rolf saw that there were indeed a scattering of other disturbances in the air, man-sized waverings visible to him only now when the larger two were gone. He heard, or felt, the thrummings of their power. Alone, he might have fallen down or fled before the least of them. Standing here with Gray and Loford, now, he found he minded these minor demons no more than so many sweat-bees or mosquitoes. And now as if they had heard Gray’s challenge, and chose not to accept it, the swarm of them began to disappear. Rolf could not have said just how; one moment the air above the citadel was thick with them, then they were fewer, and soon they were no more.
“So, then, masters of the Black Mountains,” mused Gray, still in the same low tone of conversation, that you would not think was audible ten meters off. He stood straight, dusting his hands absently against one another. “So. Do you mean then to let our differences be settled by the sword? In the name of my bold companions here I challenge you: march out and try with blades to pry us from this rock!”
Rolf heard no answer from the citadel, only a shouting from behind him, where more balloons were ready to discharge their fighting men. He ran back to take charge of the docking. Thomas, in a gleaming barbut-helm, was arriving in the ninth pair of airships, a position he had hoped would allow him to oversee both ends of the operation.
When Rolf turned back toward the citadel he could see through the open gates that men were marshalling inside as if to sally out in strength. Confusion had been replaced by the appearance of purpose.
“Som is on the battlement,” said someone. “See, there. I think he wears a crown of gold.”
Rolf shivered. The day was chill. Winter was near at hand, and this place was high.
“If he takes the field,” warned Loford, “do not strike at him, but only ward his blows. The wound you would inflict on Som the Dead is likely to become your own to bear.”
Gray, too was shivering, calling for a cloak.
Why should the sun seem dimmer, when there were no clouds? And Rolf had a feeling in his guts like that of being lost, alone, at night amid a host of enemies… and now, why should he think there mighy be something wrong with the mountain, that it might crumble and collapse beneath his feet? Loford, Thomas, all of them, were beginning to look at one another with dread.
Gray said softly: “Zapranoth is coming.”
Chup nodded once to the expectant-looking jailor-who stood near the door of Charmian’s cell. The man responded with a facial contortion that might represent a smile, and took two steps backward to a spot well shaded from the feeble glimmerings of dawn now probing down the demons’ chimney. There he let himself down carefully and lay still. Only his feet remained clearly visible, like those of a man laid low by stealthy violence.
At the cell door, Chup paused a moment to try to seating of his new sword in its sheath, and give a loosening shake to the nerve-tight muscles of his shoulders. He thought in wonder that if he were plotting a real escape for Charmian, instead of this safe pledging trickery, he would not be quite as tense as this.