Fred Saberhagen – Empire of the East Trilogy


Little Moment of Revenge

After speeding Rolf on his way with a final wave, Chup crouched down between Mewick and Loford on the little sheltered ledge they had scooped out of the side of the ravine. Looking to the southeast, he could see the Constable’s force just coming into sight a kilometer away. Despite the distance, Chup thought that he could distinguish Charmian’s long golden hair. An illusion, she would have it bound up for the ride. He told himself he should have killed her when he had the chance…Mewick was plucking at his sleeve, and motioning that it was time to move. Down in the bottom of the ravine, Chup mounted and followed the other six men remaining in the party, riding in a single file angling up the side of the ravine. Mewick was leading them to the northeast, at right angles to the course that Rolf had chosen.

About a dozen reptiles were in the sky, Chup noted as they reached the top of the slope and trotted toward the next ravine. The leatherwings were beginning to concentrate above the little Western force. Chup caught another glimpse of Abner’s force, advancing steadily, beginning now to come into the broken country.

The chances of perpetrating an ambush seemed vanishingly small at the moment. To Loford, just ahead of him, Chup called: “What’s in your bag of tricks, stout one?”

Mewick at the head of the file heard him, turned and called: “Let us see what we can find in our arrow-bags first.” And then he led them down one ravine in a sudden dash toward the enemy column that sent the reptiles speeding ahead to croak their warnings, and then back up another, smaller, narrower ravine, on a winding, reversing course that took them out of sight of the reptiles. Mewick thereupon abruptly called a halt, and with virtuosic gestures bade his men draw and nock arrows and aim into the air. When the first reptiles came coasting back over the hilltop close above, to discover what had happened to the vanished subjects of their surveillance, the ready volley brought down one and winged another. While the flock was still recoiling in noisy outrage from this ambush, Mewick led his men on up the winding ravine at a headlong gallop, once more unobserved by the foe. Following some instinct of his own that seemed as accurate as aerial observation, he halted again suddenly, dismounted, and scrambled up a slope to peer through grass at the top. Letting out a hissing noise of satisfaction, he once more pantomimed his wish for archery, this time even correcting his men’s angle of aim, and then, with an unmistakable slashing gesture, bidding them loose their arrows blindly. Before the shafts could have tallen from the sky upon any targets, Mewick was in the saddle again and leading the retreat. There was a pained outcry from somewhere below.

The little volley of arrows had fallen scattered among and around the front of the enemy column, and one of them had drawn blood. More important, it stopped the enemy’s forward progress for the moment, and assured its somewhat slower and more cautious movement in the future.

Mewick now led his men toward the north, for the time being making no effort to do anything but keep between the enemy and the course he wanted them to think that Rolf was following.

The morning wore along uneventfully. The two groups of mounted men made their way steadily northward on parallel courses. Around the line of march the desert badlands reared up strange barren shapes of rock, among which smaller rocks lay jumbled and dry ravines lost their way.

Mewick somehow found a reasonably straight way through. Then suddenly he stopped, staring intently at the reptiles in the sky. “Demons of all the East!” he muttered fiercely. “But they are getting away from us. West! We must get west, and catch up with them!”

Riding hard, they topped a rise and caught sight of the enemy column moving away to the northwest, seemingly right on the trail of Rolf who had evidently not managed to shake the reptiles after all. Abner had maneuvered himself between the fugitives he was trying to overtake, and the annoying, elusive handful of men who were trying to delay him.

Mewick kept his men moving forward briskly. “Wizard?” he asked.

Loford, riding now in the middle of the file, was letting his mount find its own way, while his large blue eyes looked into distances that were not of earth or sky, and his fingers fumbled in a bag he had withdrawn from his pack. His gross body jiggled unheeded with the rapid ride. He took from the cloth bag a smaller bag of leather, curiously decorated in many colors, and from that in turn a length of sandy-colored twine, twisted into many strange knots. He rode on for some distance, fingering this absently, then suddenly seemed to come to himself, and with a throat-clearing got the attention of all the others.

“Hum. As the signs and powers now stand, the only thing of any consequence that I can manage successfully is to evoke a desert-elemental. But even at best to call one up will mean some difficulty and danger for us all. At worse-well things could get quite out of hand.”

Mewick shook his head. “You had best try. Our swords and arrows are too few, unless we can get between them and Rolf once more.”

“I am wondering,” Chup put in, “how strong a wizard they have with them. Not that our pudgy fellow here is easily overmatched, but the Constable of the East will surely be well attended in that regard.”

“As to that,” said Loford, unperturbed, “we will soon enough find out. Now let me do my work. No, keep moving. Just a little silence; I can raise an elemental as well as almost any other man, while I ride on beast-back if need be.”

With fingers suddenly turned extremely skillful, he tilted the little leather bag so that there ran from it a thin stream of ordinary-looking sand, falling to be lost along the trail. Holding the bag in one hand while it slowly continued to spill, he used his other hand and his teeth to tug at certain places in the curiously knotted twine. One by one knots fell away and straightened out. Counting knots as they disappeared, Chup caught his breath. “We’ll all be sandblasted to the bone,” he muttered. But he made no real protes’t; heroic measures were called for.

Loford’s art took quick effect. Looking to the northwest, beyond the enemy force, Chup watched the sandy land seem to shake out its’dunes like wrinkles from a blanket, rising with the appearance of a single deep ocean swell as far as eye could see to right and left. Chup, who had seen similar things before, knew it was not in fact the whole earth lifting up, only surface sand raised by a great wave of wind, yet involuntarily he tried to brace his feet more firmly in the stirrups.

Reptiles chattered and shrieked alarm. From near the head of the distant Eastern mounted column, one tiny mounted figure detached itself, spurring with seeming confidence toward the oncoming wall of sand that here and there took on vague shapes of hands and jaws. It would be the Constable’s wizard. The tiny man-figure raised its arms, and Chup heard Loford grunt as if he had received a blow. The stout magician turned his animal aside, slid awkwardly from the saddle, and sank down on one knee, eyes squinted shut, while his comrades reined to a halt around him.

“Ah, Ardneh,” Loford groaned, “Ardneh, help! He means to turn what I have raised against us.”

The galloping Eastern wizard seemed to be under no such strain as Loford suffered. Riding easily, he moved his outstretched arms forward and down toward the oncoming elemental; Chup, watching, had the impression of a tremendous quelling, quieting force. But it might almost have been the useless gesture of a child. The wavefront of wind and wind-blown earth poured on remorselessly and struck. For a moment or two there remained a tiny isle of calm, around the mounted Eastern magician, not much wider than his arms could stretch, in which air fell quiet and lifeless before his coun-terspell. But then he and his defended island vanished; the elemental rolled on unimpeded, reaching out monstrous half-living paws of sand and air for Abner and his fifty men.

With a cry of relief, Loford staggered to his feet. Then the elemental’s peripheral winds and dust were beating on the Western men. Chup felt the sting and lash of sand, and the air was a sudden shriek around his ears. The bright sun, and his friends, were suddenly gone, concealed within the desert as it walked. When things cleared for a moment, he glimpsed the dense core of the elemental squatting some hundreds of meters to the northwest, right where Abner’s force had been. Abner’s force was still there, from the look of things. Out of the solid-looking clouds of raging sand came Eastern men individually, riding, staggering, crawling; and here and there fled blinded and demented animals. This elemental would not kill, at least not quickly and not often, but it would surely disable any human fighting force it settled on.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred