Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

The fight was savage and protracted. The West could gain no advantage until the crew of a third balloon had managed to reach the scene, and fell upon the Guardsmen’s flank. When at last the Guard retreated, there were but nine men of the West still on their feet, and several of these were weak with wounds. Rolf, bearing only the one light wound suffered earlier, helped others with their bandages. He then began to hack off fallen Guardsmen’s heads, but Mewick stopped him.

“We must move on, and find some heart or brain within this citadel where we can strike; let dead men be.”

One of the Northmen had got up into a tree to look around. “More of our fellows over there! Let’s link with them!”

Over the wall again they went, to where another dozen or fifteen Westerners had joined together, and were setting fires. Mewick was quick to argue with the leader of these men that what they were doing had little purpose, that some vital target must be found. To make his point he gestured toward the battlefield outside the citadel. There the High Lord Zapranoth remained immobile above the Western force; and what the demon might be doing to the men who swarmed like ants beneath his feet was not something that Rolf cared to think about.

But the leader of the vandalizing crew, gestured to the clouds of smoke his men were causing to go up; these, he shouted, were bound to have an effect when they were seen.

And he was right. A hundred black-clad soldiers ormore, diverted from the fight outside, came pouring back into the citadel. Som dared not let his fortress and its contents fall.

This Eastern counterattack came with a volley of arrows, then a charge. Rolf once more caught sight of Som himself, entering the fight in person in defense of what might be his own sprawling manor. The Lord of the Black Mountains, gaunt and hollow-eyed, wearing no shield or armor, shouting orders, came striding at the head of his own troops, swinging a two-handed sword. A Western cross-bowman atop a wall let fly a bolt at Som. Rolf saw the missile blur halfway to its black-clad target, spin neatly in midair, then fly back with the same speed it had been fired. It tore a hole clear through the bowman’s throat.

After that, there were few weapons raised at Som, though he ran straight at the Western line. Hack and thrust as he might, hoping to provoke a counter, those of the West who came within his reach restricted themselves to parrying and dodging his blows. Fortunately he was no great swordsman, and could do little damage to such a line as faced him now, shields at the ready. Once his sword was knocked out of his hands. He grabbed it up again, his face a mask of rage, and leaped once more to the attack. This time the Western line divided just in front of him; Mewick had quickly hatched a scheme to cut off Som and capture him, by a ring of shields pressed round him till he could be immobilized and disarmed. But the opening appeared too neatly before Som, or perhaps some magic warned him; he fell back into the shelter of his own ranks, and thenceforward was content to let them do his fighting. They came on sturdily enough.

Once more, for a time, the fighting was without letup. Then there came another small body of Western troops, fighting their way into the mass, bettering the odds just when it seemed they were about to worsen too severely. The forces separated briefly, the West dragging back their wounded where they had the chance. Rolf, looking again for Lisa, saw that she had remained at her vantage point on the roof. Perhaps she felt safer up there. Looking beyond her, he saw the sign of defeat still in the sky -the brooding shape of Zapranoth.

One of the party who had just joined them had thrown himself down, exhausted, and was answering questions about the progress of the battle outside. Rolf realized that this man and his group had just come from there, had somehow managed to fight their way over the citadel’s wall or through its gate.

” – but it does not go well. The old man withstands the demon still, how I do not know. Surely he cannot live much longer. Then Zapranoth will have us all. Already half our army has gone mad. They throw away their weapons, chew on rocks… still we have numbers on our side, and we might win, if it were not for Zapranoth. None can withstand the demon. None…”

His voice fell silent. The men around were looking at him no longer, but up toward the mountain.

Rolf craned his neck. There, on the high, barren, unclimbable slope, amid the doors where valkyries shuttled in and out, a new door had been opened. It looked as if an outer layer of rock had been cracked away as the door, of heavy dull black stuff, had been swung out. Framed in the opening, there stood what seemed to be the figure of a man, but having a beast’s head, and garbed in fur as radiant as fire. From inside the mountain, behind this figure, there streamed out a coruscating light that made Rolf think of molten metal.

And now he saw that the figure could not be human, for there was a real man beside him; smaller than an infant by comparison, but armed with a bright needle of a sword, and clothed in black like some lord of the East.

“Lord Draffut!” cried out someone in the Eastern force.

“Who will heal us if he should fall?” another called.

Other shouts of astonishment came from the Guard. They, like their enemies facing them, were lowering their weapons momentarily and looking up to marvel.

Lord Draffut bent, picked up the man beside him in one hand, and held him cradled in one arm. Then striding down the slope Lord Draffut came, walking boldly on two legs where it seemed no man could have climbed. It was as if he walked in snow or gravel, instead of solid stone; for at his touch, rock melted, not with heat but as if quickening briefly into crawling life, to quiet again when he had passed.

Though the Lord Draffut carried no weapon but one armed man, his attitude and pace were those of one who came on eagerly to enter battle. Yet from the ranks of the East there came no cheers. All men still watched in blank surprise, half of them with weapons dragging in the dirt. Som himself was peering up as if he could not credit what was happening before his eyes.

Draffut’s great strides quickly brought him close to the citadel. Then he had entered it, sliding down the last near-vertical face of rock that served as its rear wall. Behind him stretched a line of tracks left in the dead solidity of the mountain.

The men of the West who were inside the citadel contracted their defensive line now, and gripped their weapons tightly; there was no place for them to run. Then gradually they understood that Draffut and his rider were not coming straight toward them-not quite. The tiny-looking man in black raised his bare sword and pointed, and the striding lord he rode accomodatingly made a slight correction in his course. The rider’s black garments, it could now be seen, were trimmed with such a motley of other colors as should belong to no proper Eastern uniform.

Rolf was perhaps the first to recognize this man in black-and-motley garb, and no doubt the first to understand that Chup was pointing straight at Lisa on her rooftop. The girl had turned to face Chup; and in the lower sky beyond her, the weightless bulk of Zapranoth was turning too, like a tower of smoke caught in a shifting wind.

The Guardsmen, as Draffut approached their ranks, began shifting to and fro uncertainly, not knowing what the Beast-Lord meant to do, still unable to imagine what had called him forth. Draffut majestically ignored them; they scampered from his path, and like a moving siege-tower, he passed through where their ranks had been.

Lisa on her rooftop sprang to her feet, but made no move toward Draffut or away. Her building was not occupied at the moment by either East or West, but the Eastern forces were the closer to it. Draffut after he had passed them paused briefly to set down Chup, who stood with his sword in hand and glaring at the Guard. Draffut himself strode on toward the girl. Taller than the roof he reached toward, he stretched out one mighty arm toward her-

And recoiled. Beneath Rolf’s feet the ground leaped like a drumhead, beaten by the shock that had made the Lord of Beasts go staggering back.

Between the girl upon her building, and the High Lord Draffut, there now stood one who was the tall-est of the three. Seemingly sprung from nowhere, this figure was covered in dark armor, even to segmented gauntlets and closed visor. In the reflections of this metal armor, silent lightnings seemed to come and go. The world around this Dark Lord seemed askew to Rolf, and Rolf had the impression that under the Dark Lord’s feet the rocks had stretched, like taut canvas bearing weights.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred