Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The broken ground delayed them unequally, so that their lines were bent. Rolf, with bow in hand and arrows laid out before him on the ground, knelt in the middle of a line of archers. He took little time to aim, but loosed into the oncoming swarm of men in black, nocked and drew and loosed again. The air was thick with dust and missiles, and his targets moved confusingly, so it was difficult to tell what damage his own shots were doing. Certainly the ranks of black were thinning as they came. A steady droning sprang up in the air above, as the valkyries whirred industriously, in madly methodical calm they dipped into the fury of the fight below to lift the fallen warriors of Som and take them to the high place of Lord Draffut. Some machines flew through the image of the Demon-Lord, with no awareness shown on either side. It was as if each were unreal to the other, and only humans must know and deal with both.

There was no thought of saving arrows; if this attack was not stopped there would be no need to worry about the next. The man next to Rolf went down, killed by a flung stone. Others were falling in the Western ranks, but those thin lines did not pull back. Behind them was the cliff edge, or defeat and death retreating down the pass. They braced themselves instead, and readied pike and battle-axe and sword.

By now some of the enemy were come so close to Rolf that he could hear them gasping as they ran, and see the hair on hands that lifted swords to strike. Rolf threw his bowbehind him and rose up in a crouch, shield on arm and sword in hand.

An Eastern officer, marked by the plume upon his helmet, came running past in front of Rolf, with great arm-wavings urging his men on. Rolf leaped forward to get in striking range, but was checked by another Guardsman charging at him. This foe was running blindly, already berserk with battle, his eyes seemed to look unseeing through Rolf even as he swung a mace. Rolf dodged back, then stepped in -not as neatly as the nimblest warriors could, but well enough to avoid this weapon, only half-controllable. Rolf cut his sword into the Guardsman’s running legs, felt shin bones splinter, saw the man go plowing forward on his face.

One of the Northmen on Rolf’s left started his own countercharge, striding into the foe, making a desert round him with a great two-handed blade. Those of the enemy who did not fall back before this giant tried to spread around him and get at him from the sides. Rolf hung back a step until he had outflanked the liveliest of these flankers, then lunged in for the kill. The man was more than half armored, but Rolf’s sword point found a soft place in between the hipbone and the ribs. As that man fell, another came, but this one straight at Rolf. This new opponent was the better swordsman, but Rolf would not yield an inch. He warded one stroke after another, somehow, until the Northman’s long sword on its backswing wounded his enemy from behind. The odds were more than evened, and the foe went staggering back until the ranks of black had hidden him.

Then all at once there were no more of the enemy menacing, but only the retreating horde of their black backs.

“What? What is it?” Rolf demanded. Mewick had come from somewhere and had taken him by the arm.

“-bind it up,” Mewick was saying.

“What?” All the world, for Rolf, was still quivering with the shock of battle. He could not feel nor hear nor think of anything else.

“You are hurt. See, here. Not bad, but we must bind it up.”

“Ah.” Looking down, Rolf saw a small gash on the upper part of his left arm. He could not feel the slightest pain. His shield woven of green limber withes, that had been on his left arm, was all but gone now, hacked to bits. He could not recall now which of his enemies had dealt these blows, nor how he had avoided being killed by them.

The soldiers on both sides were reforming lines, just out of easy arrow range, and binding wounds. And while the valkyries went droning on, without rest or hesitation, some men of the West hurried, at Thomas’ orders, to behead the enemy who had fallen among them, gather their metal collars and throw them over the cliff. This was the only way they had discovered to prevent their foemen’s restoration. No blow from any weapon that a man could wield could stay a valkyrie from gathering up a fallen man; the Westerners learned this quickly, and then saved their breath and effort and the edges of their blades. They only grumbled and dodged the vicious, blurring rotors that smashed the pikemen’s weapons down and broke their fingers when they tried to interfere.

One of Mewick’s countrymen was calling: “Look – our boys in sight now, at the bottom of the pass. Look!”

Men turned and gathered, looking down the pass. Rolf joined them, his arm now bandaged and his mind a little clearer. He felt no great emotion at the sight of reinforcements coming.

“They’re running now that they’re in sight,” said someone. “But it seems they’ve been all day about it.”

“Only a few in sight yet, with light weapons. The mass of ’em are still far down.”

There was short time to celebrate, even had there been greater inclination. The Guard was fast reforming. Their ranks were still impressively superior in size to those of the invaders, whose small force seemed to Rolf’s eye to have been drastically diminished. He started to count how many were still on their feet, and then decided he would rather not.

Now once again the Demon-Lord was drifting slowly closer, his image rolling like a troubled cloud. The screen of protective magic that Gray had thrown up before Zapranoth yielded to the demon’s pressure but stayed squarely in his path.

Neither Loford nor Gray had ducked or dodged or moved a hand to save themselves as yet. Around them tall protective shields had been held up, by the minor wizards who had abandoned any thought of dueling Zapranoth themselves. More than one had fallen, by stone or arrow, of these men protecting Gray and Loford. Neither one of the two strong wizards had been struck by any material weapon, but anyone looking at their faces now might think that both were wounded.

A darkness like the dying of the sun fell round the two tall magicians now. It was the shadow cast by Zapranoth as he loomed nearer. And now, for the first time on this field, his voice came booming forth: “Are these the wizards of the West who seek to murder me? Ho, Gray, where is my life? Will you pull it out now from your little satchel?” Still the thin gray screen before him held, but now it flared and flickered raggedly, and still he slowly pressed it back.

“Come now,” boomed Zapranoth, “favor me with an answer, mighty magician. Admit me to your august company. Let me speak to you. Let me touch you, if only timidly.”

At that Loford gave a weak cry and toppled, senseless, and would have struck the ground headlong if some standing near him had not caught him first.

Now Gray stood alone against the pressure of the dark shape above. He cried out too, and swayed, but did not fall. Instead he straightened himself with some reserve of inner strength, and with his arms flung wide set his fingers moving in a pattern as intricate as that a musician makes upon a keyboard. There sprang up gusts of wind as sudden and violent as the firing of catapults, so men who stood near Gray were thrown to the ground, and dust and pebbles were blasted into the air, in savage streams that crisscrossed through the heart of Zapranoth before they lost velocity and fell in a rain of dirt into the citadel three hundred meters distant.

The image of the demon did not waver in the least. But these howling shafts of wind were only the forerunners, the scouts and skirmishers, of the tremendous power that Gray in his extremity had set in motion; Rolf saw this, glancing behind him over the cliff edge to the west. There where the sky some moments earlier had been azure and calm, there now advanced a line of clouds, roiling and galloping at a pace far faster than a bird could fly. These clouds, confined to a thin flat plane a little above the level of the citadel, converged like charging cavalry upon the waiting, looming bulk of Zapranoth.

An air-elemental, thought Rolf, with awe and fear and hope commingled; he would have shouted it aloud, but no one could have heard him through the screaming wind.

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