Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy

Mewick raised his eyebrows, then nodded, handing Rolf provisions and a water bag. “So it must be. We here will do what must be done. Which way does Ardneh bid you go? We will try to turn the ones who follow aside.”

“I am still heading just a little west of north. I think it will be many days yet before I reach the goal-whatever it may be.”

Mewick and others raised their hands, murmuring good wishes. Arrangements for future contact would be left to nighttime and the birds -or to Ardneh, if he should take a hand overtly. Rolf dug heels into his mount and set off along the ravine to the north; a glance back showed Catherine riding competently and close behind him. If, as her accent suggested, she were really of some noble family in the Offshore Islands, it was natural that she should know how to ride.

The cleft of the ravine grew shallow, and bent off in the wrong direction. Rolf heeled his riding-beast to a faster pace as he urged it out onto the flat surface of a plateau. Steadily they put distance between themselves and the place behind them where Mewick was trying to arrange an ambush of an enemy force that outnumbered his by something more than five to one. Rolf knew that Mewick and his six men would not stand and be wiped out, not if they could help it. They would strike and retreat and strike again, if they were able. If they could get through the day, the night would offer better hope. But it was early morning now…

Rolf and his companion had come about a kilometer across the open plateau, and were almost in reach of another favorably oriented ravine, offering some chance of shelter from the sky, when there came drifting from a height the raucous cry that meant they had been spotted by a reptile.

No use to gallop now; Rolf held to a steady pace. The reptile was overtaking them on effortless wings, staying high out of bowshot; directly over their heads, it marked their position for the pursuers on the ground.

When Rolf and Catherine topped a slight rise, they could look back and see the mounted Eastern force, coming now onto the broken plateau, nearing the place where Mewick and the others must be in wait. It seemed the ambush could be no surprise, for there were more reptiles, concentrating over something Rolf could not see -over seven Western soldiers, no doubt. He felt an urge, not courageous but simply irrational, to turn back and be with them. But that was not to be.

Catherine drew abreast of him as they rode on. She asked: “Your whole band is scattering in different directions?” When he did not answer, she asked him: “What did he call you back there? Ardneh?”

“My name is Rolf.”

“Rolf, then. There is something I would ask of you.”

“Wait.” He urged his mount over a difficult stretch of terrain, then stopped for a brief halt, to rest the animals for the space of a few breaths and to see by what route the pursuing cavalry was following. “Now. What was it?”

Catherine said: “If we are going to be taken by them, kill me first.”

It was only surprising for a moment. “If that time ever comes, I will have other matters to think about. But cheer up, it has not come yet.”

The enemy riders had turned suddenly away from what seemed their logical course, and were slowing down. No reason was visible at this distance; but the concentration of reptiles, somewhat nearer, seemed greatly agitated. The one who had been flying directly over Rolf and Catherine, evidently assuming that they could be found again without any trouble on this bright morning, suddenly darted back to join the others.

“Now!” Seizing the chance for whatever it might prove to be worth, Rolf turned his beast off running at a tangent to the course they had been following. He had begun to alter his true course, a little west of north, as soon as he thought the leatherwings had spotted them, and now he took it up again. And now, far ahead, he could already see how the country shaded out of barren badlands and into a higher and grassier plateau.

The moments of freedom from reptile observation fled by, and Rolf could make no profit from them. There was no reasonable place of concealment in sight, nowhere they could vanish, to be gone when the reptile came back to find them, as it must. As he rode, Rolf anxiously tried to reach Ardneh’s thought, to find guidance. Nothing helpful came, nothing except the impression of a titanic weariness: a vague image of a faceless, beleaguered giant, hard pressed by a thousand enemies. What Rolf was doing was important, and worthy of Ardneh’s help, but no more so than ten or a score of other struggles in which Ardneh was simultaneously involved. At this moment there could be no help for Rolf, except the continuing sense of the direction he was to travel.

The summer day stretched long ahead of them, before the night would bring a reasonable chance of shelter and of rest. Again there sounded the shouts of men at war, louder than might have been expected when fifty were facing only seven. Looking back, Rolf saw a gray maelstrom of wind and dust settling upon, or very near, the area where the fighting must have been. Loford must have managed to raise a desert-elemental. The Eastern troops would be powerless to advance as long as it blasted and blinded them with sand, but the Constable would be sure to have able magical assistance with him and the elemental might be soon dispersed. Meanwhile, the reptiles were being driven from the fighting by the terrific winds; now instead they came on after Rolf and the girl.

Given a great-enough advantage in numbers, the leatherwings were willing to attack armed humans and there were a score or more of them now in sight. Rolf asked: “Can you use that stick of wood you carry?”

Catherine unslung the bow from her back and groped for an arrow, meanwhile guiding her mount with her knees. “Once I could shoot with some skill. It has been a long time since I had the chance.”

Rolf grunted. He was an indifferent archer, but almost certainly he would do better than she with sword.

The reptiles circled them at low altitude, a ragged-looking swirl of gray-green wings and yellow teeth; then, from all points of the compass at once, they closed. Catherine’s first arrow missed, but she had time for a second, and one of the creatures tumbled heavily into the sand, a clean kill. Then the cawing cloud engulfed the riders. Rolf swung his blade with brutal energy. The riding-beasts plunged and screamed when they felt teeth and talons. Again and again Rolfs sword met resistance, parting leathery hide, stringy flesh, and light bones. Then suddenly the flock was gone, those who could still fly whirling at a safe distance to screech their rage, leaving half a dozen dead and wounded to litter the thirsty sand. Catherine had sheltered under her great cloak when the enemy came within clawing range, and she was unscratched though the cloak had been rent in several places. Nor was Rolf injured, but the animals, shivering and muttering, were each bleeding from several wounds.

Still, the riding-beasts trudged stolidly on, and this was not the time and place to stop and tend them if it could be avoided. Rolf was momentarily expecting the enemy cavalry to come into sight, the elemental had perhaps been dispersed; though a pall of dust still hanging over the area made it difficult to see what was going on back there. But no riders appeared. Once again, fainter than before, Rolf heard the sounds of fighting. Time was being bought for his escape, at what cost he did not care to think.

The reptiles continued in their circle. Catherine rode silently at his side, watching them with her chin up, an arrow nocked and ready in her bow.

The morning progressed, the reptiles gradually withdrawing farther and at last breaking their circle and landing, one of their number remaining airborne to observe Rolf and Catherine from a distance. Rolf called a rest stop, and devoted it mainly to caring for the animals, whose wounds were bloodier than he had thought. Insects were buzzing around them already. With Catherine helping efficiently, he did what he could to clean the wounds, and bandaged those in places where a bandage could be made secure. Then the two humans walked on for a while, leading the animals, before remounting.

Considering the damage the reptiles had suffered in their first attack, Rolf was not surprised that they forebore to launch another. When about midday they returned in a menacing cloud, Catherine loosed another arrow at them. They clamored insults but flew no closer.

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