Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

When there was a pause in the talk, Rolf asked, “I’ve wondered-what is the East? Or who is it? Is there some king over it all?”

“I have heard different things,” said Loford slowly, “about those who are Ekuman’s overlords; I know almost nothing about them. We are in an odd corner of the world here. I don’t even know much about the higher powers of the West.” Rolfs face must have shown a dozen more questions struggling to be formulated, for Loford smiled at him. “Yes, there is a West, too, and we are part of it, we who are willing to fight for the chance to live like men. The West has been defeated here. But it is not dead. I think Ekuman’s masters will be too busy elsewhere to send any great new power to his aid – if we can find a way to bring down the power that he has already.”

There was a little silence. Rolf’s heart leaped up at the thought of bringing down Ekuman, but he had seen the sobering reality of the Satrap’s strength – the long columns of soldiers on parade, meant to overawe, hundreds mounted and thousands more on foot; and the strengthened walls of the great Castle.

Loford, having finished some private thought of his own, resumed his speech. “If Ekuman can expect no help, neither can we. The people of the Broken Lands will have to break their own chains or continue to wear them.” Shaking his great head sadly, he looked at Mewick. “I had hoped you might bring us word of some free army still in the field in the north. Some prince of the West still surviving there – or at least some government trying to be neutral. That would have been a good encouragement.”

“Prince Duncan of Islandia survives,” said Mewick. “But I think he has no army on the mainland now. Perhaps beyond the sea are other independent states.” His mournful mouth gave a tiny twitch upward at the corners. “I am here to help, if that encourages anyone.”

“It does indeed,” Loford said. Then, with a visibly quick change of thought, he threw a narrow-eyed look at Rolf. “Tell me, lad, what do you know of the Elephant?”

Rolf was taken by surprise. “The Elephant? Why, it’s some wizard’s symbol. I don’t know what it means. I have seen it -maybe six times in all.”

“Where and when?”

Rolf thought. “Once, woven into a bit of cloth, that I saw at a magic-show in town. And there is a place up in the Broken Mountains where someone has carved it in the rock – ” He went on, enumerating as best he could the times and places where he had glimpsed the strange image of the impossible beast with its prehensile nose and swordlike horns or teeth.

Loford listened with close attention. “Anything else? Any talk you might have heard, even, especially during the last few days?”

Rolf shook his head helplessly. “I spent those days plowing in the fields. Until…”

“Aye, of course.” Loford let out a groaning sigh. “I grasp at straws. But we must try every chance to find the Elephant, before those of the Castle find it.”

Rolf supposed that the big man was talking about another magically important Elephant-image. “Ask help of a wizard?” he suggested.

Loford’s jaw dropped. Mewick’s eyebrows went up, his face took on an odd expression, and he made odd choking gasps – it took Rolf another moment to realize that Mewick was laughing. Manka’s eyes seemed to flash angrily at first, but then she too had to smile.

“Have you ever heard of the Big One, child?” she demanded of Rolf, in a voice half-irritated, half-amused.

A light dawned. Once, long ago, Rolf had been sitting in a market town on Social Night, resting from his play to listen to the talk of men. The amateur wizards of the countryside had been assembled, discussing the feats of the professionals. •The Big One from south of the delta would have done such and such a thing easily, someone had said, using the name as a standard of excellence. And the men listening had nodded soberly, their farmer-beards bobbing. Yes, the Big One. The name impressed them all, and for the little boy Rolf it had for a time afterward called up a mental picture of an enormous and powerful being, nodding benignly over farm and hill and marsh.

“No, it is all right,” Loford, now smiling himself, assured Rolf. “You give me good advice. I must keep in mind that I am far from being the greatest wizard in the world.” His smile vanished. “I am just the best one we now have available, since the Old One was taken under the Castle to die.”

Mewick said to him, “You must take over the Old One’s leadership in magic. But who is going to lead in other matters, now that he is gone? I speak plainly. You are not – not too practical, always, I think.”

“Yes, yes, I know that I am not.” Loford sounded irritated. “Thomas, perhaps. I hope he will lead. Oh, he’s brave enough, and as much set against the Castie as anyone. But to really lead, to seize responsibility, that’s something else again.”

The talk went on. Manka ladled out more stew for Rolf, and he went on eating and listening. Always the thoughts and plans of the others came looping back to the mysterious Elephant. Rolf came gradually to understand that they were speaking of something more than an image, that the name meant some thing or creature of the Old World still existing, here somewhere in the Broken Lands. And this creature or thing loomed in the near future with terrible importance for East and West alike. This much -but, maddeningly, no more – could Lo-ford’s powers tell him of the Elephant.

Mewick suddenly stopped talking in mid-sentence, his eyes turned skyward, one hand shol out and frozen in a gesture meant to keep the others still. But it was too late, they had been discovered from above, in spite of the trees’ shelter.

Overhead there sounded a clangorous shouting of reptiles. A dozen of the flying creatures were diving to the attack, coming in at an angle under the trees, talons spread, long snouts open to bare their teeth.

Rolf dived into the shelter and jumped out again with his sword. Mewick and Manka had already caught up bows and quivers from their small pile of equipment beside the fire; in another instant one of the attackers was flopping on the ground at Rolf’s feet, transfixed by an arrow.

The main target of the attack, Rolf saw, was the bird huddled in the tree. The bird roused itself as the reptiles, momentarily baffled by branches, came whirling around it; but it seemed to be blinded, rendered stupid by the light.

Before the scaly ones could work their way in among the branches, their attack was broken up. Arrow after arrow sang at them, hitting more often than not. And Rolf leaped right in among the lower branches, sword thrusting and slashing high and wide. He could not be sure that he wounded any of the reptiles, though he harvested leaves and twigs in plenty. But between sword and arrows the leatherwings were forced to retreat, whirling upward in a shrieking swarm of gray-green rage. Arrows had brought down four of them, and these Rolf now had the satisfaction of finishing with his blade. They screamed words at him as they died, half-comprehensible curses and threats; still the slaughtering meant no more to him than killing beasts.

Having risen out of bow-shot, the surviving reptiles maintained a flying circle directly above the hummock, cawing and screaming mightily.

“When they do that, it means there’s soldiers coming,” Manka said. She had already slung her bow on her back and was moving speedily to gather up the rest of the camp’s scanty equipment. “Quick, young one, go and uncover the canoe.”

Rolf had seen the dugout, camouflaged by branches, floating against the bank near the pool-where he had washed. He ran now to load things into it. Manka called to the bird. Following her voice it descended from the tree, impressive talons groping blindly and clumsily as it walked, feeling for the prow of the canoe. With one surprising extension of its wings it mounted there and perched, muffling itself in folded wings so that it resembled some badly-stuffed figurehead.

Mewick, a bow still in his hands, was trotting anxiously from one side of the hummock to the other, trying to learn from which direction the soldiers were approaching. Loford, standing ankle-deep at the water’s edge beside the canoe, kept bending and scooping up massive handfuls of grayish swamp-bottom muck. Each time he muttered over the glob, and then let it dribble back into the water. At last one string of droplets veered from the vertical, went spraying out sideways as if caught by a strong blast of wind.

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