Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Loford pointed in the same direction. “They come from that way, Mewick,” he called out softly.

“Then let us go the other way, quick!” Mewick came running to the canoe.

But Loford was now muttering faster than ever, and making odd sweeping motions with his arms, like a man trying to swim backward through the air. His fingertips threw droplets of muck. He kept up this gesticulating even while Manka was guiding him to take his seat in the dugout, so that he nearly swamped it in his clumsiness, for all the others could do to maintain balance. And I thought him a warrior! said Rolf to himself with a pang, looking back impatiently from his position in the foremost seat. Then Rolf’s jaw began to drop. He saw ripples growing in the swamp-water, swells that came from no wind or current. Growing in amplitude with each motion of the Big One’s steadily sweeping arms, the waves followed the timing of those arms; and they did not spread like ordinary waves but instead, gathered together building higher.

Manka shoved off from shore, and then paddled from the rear seat, while the nexus of disturbed water raised by the Big One’s magic followed sluggishly after the canoe. Rolf paddled in the front, his sword in the canoe bottom ready to hand. Mewick, still holding the bow with a long arrow nocked, was in the second seat, whispering Rolf directions on which way to steer among the rotting tree-stumps and the small overgrown hummocks of firm land. Rolf kept glancing back. In the third seat, Loford still labored to build his spell. He shifted his great weight awkwardly and once more nearly rolled the canoe. Rolf thought that they were going over, but a muddy projection like a sheeted hand bulged up above the surface of the water to hold, briefly but strongly, against the gunwale. Then Rolf understood that he was witnessing the raising of an elemental, and his respect for Loford jumped to a new high.

The reptiles had seen the first of the raising too, for one of them now left the circular formation that was holding over the canoe, and flew back over the big hummock the canoe had just left, crying out a warning.

But the warning might be too late to do the pursuing but still invisible soldiers any good. Urged on by the ever smaller and more precise movements of Loford’s hands, the disturbance in the shallow water behind the canoe had become a slow, fantastic boil, which mounted higher and higher and now raced away, sweeping back around the big hummock, beyond which the enemy must be drawing near.

Now the water around the canoe was grown quite still again. As if by some command, Rolf and Manka had both ceased to paddle. All but the blinded bird sat looking back and waiting.

Loford’s hands were still outspread. “Paddle!” he urged, in a sudden fierce whisper. For a moment Rolf was unable to obey-because he saw now, on the other side of the big hummock, and mounting almost instantly to the height of its central trees, a great upwelling structure of mud and slime and water. Shouts greeted the elemental, the startled and fearful voices of men enough to fill many canoes. Rolf could not see those men, but beyond the trees he could see the thing of mud marching among them ponderously. It was gray and black, and shiny as if with grease, and what little shape it had oozed from it as it moved.

Screams rang out that came from no reptilian throats, and then sharp splashing told of men floundering clear of overturned boats. There followed more confused yelling, and then the rhythmic work of paddles straining in retreat.

“Paddle!” Loford said. “It may turn back now after us.”

Rolf paddled, at Mewick’s direction steering into a channel of sorts that ran between half-formed banks of earth.

“Paddle!” Loford urged again, though Rolf and Manka were already hard at work. Rolf’s hasty glance over his shoulder showed him that the elemental, shrunken but still tall as a man, had come racing back around the hummock and was in full pursuit of its creator and the boat that bore him. The wave-shape jetted watery, unintelligible sounds in little bursts of spray; it shrank still more as it closed the distance between itself and the canoe. Loford was soothing the thing he had raised up, soothing and destroying it, his voice whispering to it once more, his hands working with firm, down-pressing gestures.

Such life as the elemental had went ebbing away from it with its volume. What finally came purling under the dug-out was no more than a sluggish wave, roiling the tiny green plants that scummed the water’s surface. As it passed, lifting him, Rolf saw turning within it the thonged sandal of a Castle soldier. He watched in vain to see if any more satisfying trophy might be displayed.

Screaming in rage, but staying impotently out of bow-shot, the reptiles still followed the canoe. In a little while, trees began to close more thickly over the waterway the craft was following, and a mass of swamp-forest ahead promised almost complete shelter. Now in their frustrated fury a few of the reptiles dared to dive, screeching, at the bird which still perched motionless upon the dugout’s prow.

Rolf was quick to drop the paddle and grab his sword again. With Mewick’s arrows flying at them and the sword-blade singing past their heads, the leatherwings had to sheer away. They climbed again, and disappeared above what was becoming an almost solid roof of greenery.

Rolf looked gloomily at his sword, unstained in this latest skirmish. “Mewick-teach me to use weapons?”

“… in self-defense,” Mewick muttered, sitting up. He seemed to have thrown himself into the bottom of the canoe to escape the sword’s last swipe.

“Oh! I’m sorry.” Rolfs ears burned. He took up his paddle and applied himself to its use, looking straight ahead.

After a while Mewick’s voice behind him said, “Yes, all right, then I will teach you, when I can. Since the sword is in your hand already.”

Rolf looked back. “And other kinds of fighting, too? The way you kicked that Castle-man yesterday…”

“Yes, yes, when there is time.” Mewick’s voice held no enthusiasm. “These are not things to be learned in a week or a month.”

The channel they had been following divided, came together, and then branched again. Manka, now choosing their way from her position in the stern, seldom hesitated over which branch to take. Loford’s magic continued to be of help; it opened walls of interlaced vines ahead of the canoe -or at least made them easier to open by hand -and then knitted them once more into a barrier after the craft had passed. Rolf paddled in the direction he was bidden, meanwhile keeping a sharp lookout ahead.

Looking ahead, Rolf was the first to see the young girl gazing down at them from a lookout’s perch in a high tree; he rested his paddle and was about to speak when Manka said, “It’s all right. She’s a sentry of the big camp.”

The brown-haired girl in the tree, dressed like Manka in male clothing, also recognized the Big One and his wife. She came sliding down from her observation post and ran along the bank to greet them. To Rolf and Mewick she was introduced as Sarah; Rolf guessed she was about fourteen years old.

And she was obviously anxious about something. “I don’t suppose any of you have any word of Nils?” she asked, looking from one person to another.

Nils was Sarah’s boy friend, seemingly about Rolf’s age or a little older. He had gone out on some kind of raid or scouting expedition with the other young men of the Free Folk, and they were overdue. No one in the canoe was able to give Sarah any information, but they all tried to reassure her, and she waved after them cheerfully enough when they paddled on.

Very soon after passing the sentry-post, they came to an island much larger than the one they had fled earlier in the day. A dozen canoes were already beached at a muddy landing-place, from which well-worn trails branched into the woods. Along one of these paths six or eight people came filing to greet the newcomers as they landed.

By now the afternoon was far advanced. Here in the deep shade of the island’s trees the bird, Strijeef, began to come out of his lethargy. He raised his head and said a few words in his musical voice, then flew soundlessly up into a stout tree where he settled himself again. This time he did not hide his head but peered out slit-eyed from among puffed feathers. A few words of the bird’s speech seemed to have been directed at Rolf, but he had been unable to understand.

“The bird bids you thanks, for fighting off reptiles,” said a tall young man, taking note of Rolfs perplexity.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred