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Empire of the East
By Saberhagen, Fred
Tor BooksCopyright © 2003 Saberhagen, Fred
All right reserved.
Hear Me, Ekuman
The Satrap Ekuman's difficulties with his aged prisoner had only begun when he got the fellow down into the dungeon under the Castle and tried to begin a serious interrogation. The problem was not, as you might have thought from a first look at the old man, that the prisoner was too fragile and feeble, liable to die at the first good twinge of pain. Not at all. It was almost incredible, but actually the exact opposite was true. The old man was actually too tough, his powers still protected him. All through the long night he not only defended himself, but kept trying to hit back.
Ekuman's two wizards, Elslood and Zarf, were adepts as able as any that the Satrap had ever encountered west of the Black Mountains, far too strong for any lone prisoner to overcome, especially here on their own ground. Yet the old man fought--in pride and stubbornness, perhaps, and doubtless with the realization that his fighting could cause powers so enormous to be arrayed against him, could create a tension so great, that his inevitable collapse would bring him sudden and relatively painless death.
The intensity of the silent struggle mounted all through the darkest morning hours, when human powers are known to wane, and others may reach their peak. Ekuman and his wizards could not identify the particular forces of the West that the old man called upon, but certainly they were not trivial.Long before the end, the air within the buried dungeon seemed to Ekuman to be ringing audibly with powers, and his human eyesight misinformed him that the ancient vaults of the stone ceiling had elongated and receded into some mysterious distance. Zarf's toad-familiar, wont to jump with glee during the interrogation of stubborn prisoners, had taken refuge in a puddle of torchlight near the foot of the ascending stair, for once wanting nothing to do with the dark corners of the chamber. It crouched there solemnly, goggle eyes following its master as he moved about.
Elslood and Zarf took turns standing on the rim of the pit, three meters deep, at whose bottom the old man had been chained. They had with them talismans of their choice, and had drawn signs on floor and wall. They of course could gesture freely--though on the level of physical action the struggle was very quiet, as was to be expected when it involved wizards of this rank.
While one of Ekuman's magicians took his turn at maintaining the pressure, the other stood back before the Satrap's elevated chair, conferring with him. They were all sure that the old man was a leader, perhaps the very chief, of those who called themselves the Free Folk. These were bands of the native populace, reinforced by some stiff-necked refugees from other lands, who hid themselves in hills and coastal swamps and carried on an unremitting guerrilla warfare against Ekuman.
It was only through a stroke of fortune that a routine search operation in the swamps had netted the old man. Zarf and a troop of forty soldiers had come upon him sleeping in a hut. Ekuman was beginning to believe that if the old man had chanced to be awake, they might not have taken him at all. Even with the prisoner at his present disadvantage, Elslood and Zarf together had not even managed to learn his name.
Down in the pit the guttering torchlight flashed with unusual brightness from chains that were of no ordinary metal. Blood puddled darkly at the old man's feet, but not a drop of it was his. Lifeless before him one of Ekuman's dungeon-wardens lay. This man had approached the chained wizard incautiously, to be surprised when his own torture-knife whipped itself out of its sheath to fly up and bury its dull blade to the hilt in its owner's throat. After that, Ekuman had ordered all his human servitors save the two wizards from the chamber.
Later, when the prisoner had begun to display small but unmistakeable signs of weakening, Ekuman considered having the wardens in again, to try what little knives and flames might do. But the wizards advised against it, pleading that the best chance for a cruel prolongation of agony, for extracting useful information from the victim, lay in finishing by the powers of magic alone the process they had begun. Their pride was stung.
The Satrap thought about it, and let his wizards have their way, while he sat attentively through the long hours of the test. He had a high wall of a forehead, and a full, darkish beard. He wore a simple robe of black and bronze; his black boots shifted now and then upon the stone floor.
Only when the night outside was drawing to its end--though day and night in here were all the same--did the old man break silence at last. He spoke to Ekuman, and the words evidently formed no spell, for they came clearly enough through the guarded air above the torture-pit. When toward the end of the speech the victim's breath began to fail, Ekuman stood up from his chair and leaned forward to hear better. On the Satrap's face at that moment was a look of politeness, as of one simply showing courtesy to an elder.
"Hear me, Ekuman!"
The toad-familiar crouched lower, becoming utterly motionless, at the sound of those first words.
"Hear me, for I am Ardneh! Ardneh, who rides the Elephant, who wields the lightning, who rends fortifications as the rushing passage of time consumes cheap cloth. You slay me in this avatar, but I live on in other human beings. I am Ardneh, and in the end I will slay thee, and thou wilt not live on."
Given the circumstances, Ekuman knew no alarm at being threatened. The word "Elephant," though, caught his attention sharply. He glanced quickly at his wizards when it was uttered. Zarf's and Elslood's eyes fell before his, and he returned his full attention to the prisoner.
Pain showed now in the prisoner's face, and sounded in his voice. Defenses crumbling, powers failing, he was quickly becoming no more than an old man, no more than another victim about to die. He labored on, with croaking speech.
"Hear me, Ekuman. Neither by day nor by night will I slay thee. Neither with the blade nor with the bow. Neither with the edge of the hand...nor with the fist. Neither with the wet...nor with the dry..."
Ekuman strained to hear more, but the old lips had ceased to move. Now only the flicker of torchlight gave the illusion of life to the victim's face, as it did to the face of the dead torturer at his feet.
The ringing pressure of invisible forces faded quickly from the dank air. As Ekuman straightened, sighing, and turned from the pit, he could not resist a quick glance upward to make sure that the vaulting had settled back where it belonged.
Zarf, slightly the junior of the two wizards, had gone to open a door and call the wardens in to see to the disposal of the corpses. As the magician turned back from this errand, Ekuman demanded: "You will examine the old one's body, with special care?"
"Yes, Lord." Zarf did not sound optimistic about the results to be expected from such an autopsy. His toad-familiar, however, was now grown lively again, and ready to begin the job. It burbled shrilly as it hopped into the pit and began its usual routine of pranks with the two bodies.
Ekuman stretched, wearily, and began to ascend the worn stone stair. Something had been accomplished, one of the rebel chieftains killed. But that was not enough. The information Ekuman required had not been gained.
Halfway up the first curved flight of stairs he stopped, turned back his head, and asked: "What make you of that speech the ancient blessed me with?"
Elslood, three steps behind, nodded his fine gray head, knit his well-creased brow, and pursed his dry lips thoughtfully; but at the moment Elslood could find nothing to say.
Shrugging, the Satrap went on up. It needed a hundred and more stone steps to raise him from the dungeon to gray morning air in a closed courtyard, from courtyard to keep, and from keep to the tower where his own quarters were. At several points Ekuman acknowledged, without pausing, the salutes of bronze-helmed soldiers standing guard.
Once above ground, the stairs curved through the Castle's massive, newly strengthened walls. The bulky keep was three tall stories high, and the tower rose two levels more above its roof. Most of the tower's lower level was taken up by a single large room, the Presence Chamber, wherein Ekuman generally conducted his affairs of state. At one side of this large round chamber space had been given to the wizards, covered alcoves in which they might keep their implements, benches and tables where they might do their work under their Lord's most watchful eye.
It was straight to this side of the Presence Chamber that Elslood went as soon as he and Ekuman had ascended to the tower. Around him here he had all the sorcerer's impedimenta: masks, and talismans, and charms not easily nameable, all most curiously wrought, piled on stands and tables and depending from the wall. On a stand a single thick brown candle burned, pale of flame now in the cool morning light that filtered through the high narrow windows.
Pausing first to mutter a secret precautionary word, Elslood put out a hand to set aside the arras which concealed an alcove. Within this space the Satrap allowed him to keep to himself certain private volumes and devices. The drapery pulled back revealed an enormous black guardian-spider, temporarily immobilized by the secret word, crouched on a high shelf. The tall wizard reached his long arm past the spider to withdraw a dusty volume.
When it was brought into the light Ekuman saw that it was an Old World book, of marvelous paper and binding that had already outlasted more than one generation of parchment copies. Technology, thought the Satrap, and despite himself he shivered slightly, inwardly, watching the fair white pages turned so familiarly by Elslood's searching fingers. It was not easy for one belonging to a world that thought itself sane and modern and stable to accept the reality of such things. Not even for Ekuman, who had seen and handled the evidences of technology more frequently than most. This book was not the only Old World remnant preserved within his Castle's walls.
And somewhere outside his walls, waiting to be found--the Elephant. Ekuman rubbed his palms together in impatience.
Having taken his book to the window for the light, Elslood had evidently located in it the passage he sought. He was reading silently now, nodding to himself like a man confirming an opinion.
At last he cleared his throat and spoke. "It was a quotation, Lord Ekuman, nearly word for word. From this--which is either a fable or a history of the Old World, I know not which. I will translate." Elslood put back his wizard's hood from his bush of silvery hair, cleared his throat again, and read out in a firm voice:
"Said Indra to the demon Namuci, I will slay thee not by day or night, neither with the staff nor with the bow, neither with the palm of the hand nor with the fist, neither with the wet nor with the dry."
"One of the gods, Lord. Of lightning..."
"And of Elephants?" Sarcasm bit in Ekuman's voice. Elephant was the name of some creature, real or mythical, of the Old World. Here in the Broken Lands depictions of this beast were to be seen in several places: stamped or painted on Old World metal, woven into a surviving scrap of Old World cloth that Ekuman had seen, and carved, probably at some less ancient time, upon a rock cliff in the Broken Mountains.
And now, somehow, the Elephant had come to be the symbol of those who called themselves the Free Folk. Far more important, a referent of this symbol still existed in the form of some real power, hidden somewhere in this land that refused to accept Ekuman as its conqueror--so the Satrap's wizards assured him, and so he believed. By all surface appearances the land was his, the Free Folk were only an outlaw remnant; yet all the divinings of his magicians warned him that without the Elephant under his control his rule was doomed to perish.
Still he was not really expecting the answer that Elslood gave him:
"Possibly, Lord, quite possibly. In at least one image that I have seen elsewhere, Indra is shown as mounted on what I believe to be an Elephant."
"Then read on."
The ominous tone was plain in Ekuman's voice; the wizard read on quickly: "'But he killed him in the morning twilight, by sprinkling over him the foam of the sea.' The god Indra killed the demon Namuci, that is."
"Hum." Ekuman had just noticed something: Indra-Ardneh. Namuci-Ekuman. Of course a power of magic could reside in words, but hardly in this simple transposition of syllables. The discovery of the apparent verbal trickery brought him relief rather than alarm. The old man, unable to strike back with effect, had still managed to work some subtlety into a dying threat. Subtlety was hardly substance, even in magic.
Ekuman let himself smile faintly. "Fragile sort of demon, to die of a little sea-spray," he commented.
Relieved, Elslood indulged himself in a light laugh. He leafed through a few more pages of his book. "As I recall the story, Lord, this demon Namuci had kept his life, his soul, hidden in the sea-foam. Therefore was he vulnerable to it." Elslood shook his head. "One would have thought it a fairly clever choice for a hiding place."
* * *
Ekuman grunted noncommittally. At the sound of a step he turned, to see Zarf entering the Presence Chamber. Zarf was younger and shorter than Elslood and also resembled far less the popular conception of a wizard. Judged by appearance, Zarf might have been a merchant or a prosperous farmer--save for the toad-familiar, which rode now under a fold of cloak at his shoulder, all but invisible save for its lidded eyes.
"You have already finished looking at the old man's body? It told you nothing?"
"There is nothing to be learned from that, Lord." Zarf tried to meet Ekuman's gaze boldly, then looked away. "I can make a further examination later--but there is nothing."
In silent but obvious dissatisfaction Ekuman regarded his two magicians, who awaited his pleasure standing motionless but otherwise quite like children in their fear. It was a continual enjoyment to the Satrap to have power over people as powerful as these. Of course it was not by any innate personal strength or skill that Ekuman could dominate Elslood and Zarf. His command over them had been given to him in the East, and well they knew how effectively he might enforce it. The toad-familiar, beneath any threat of punishment, squealed shrilly in some private mirth.
Having given the wizards time to consider the possible consequences of his wrath, Ekuman said, "Since neither of you can now tell me anything of value, you had better get to your crystals and inkpools and see what you can learn. Or has either of you some stronger method of clairvoyance to propose?"
"No, Lord," said Elslood, humble.
"No, Lord." But then Zarf dared to attempt defense. "Since this Elephant we seek is doubtless not a living creature, but some work of...engineering, science..." The absurd words still came hard to Zarf. "...then to locate it, to find out anything about it more than we know already, that it exists and is important, this may be beyond the skill of any man in divination...." And Zarf's voice trailed off in fear as his glance returned to Ekuman's face.
Ekuman moved wearily across the Presence Chamber, opened a door, and set foot upon the stair that led up to his private apartments. "Find me the Elephant," he ordered, simply and dangerously, ere he began to climb. As he went, his voice came drifting down to them: "Send me the Master of the Troops, and the Master of the Reptiles as well. I will have my power in this land made secure, and I will have it quickly!"
"The day of his daughter's wedding draws near," Zarf whispered, nodding solemnly. The two men looked grimly at each other. Both knew how important it was to Ekuman that his power should be, or at least appear, seamless and perfect on the day when the Lords and Ladies from other Satrapies around appeared here at the Castle for the wedding feast.
"I will go down," sighed Elslood at last, "and try if I may learn something from the old one's corpse. And I will see to it that the ones he wants are summoned. Do you stay here and endeavor again to achieve some useful vision." Zarf, nodding in agreement, was already hurrying to the alcove where he kept his own devices; he would pour a pool of ink and gaze into it.
On the first landing of the stair below the Presence Chamber Elslood drew aside to make room, and bowed low to the Princess Charmian, who was going up. Her beauty rose through the dim passage like a sun. She wore cloth of bronze and silver and black, and a scarf of red and black for her betrothed. Her serving-women, whom she chose for ugliness, came following in a nervous file.
Charmian ascended past Elslood without deigning to give him a word or glance. For his part, as always, he could not keep himself from following her with his eyes until she was out of sight.
He straightened, then, and put a hand into a secret pocket of his robe and touched the long strands of her golden hair that he kept there. Those hairs had been obtained at deadly risk, and twisted, with many a powerful incantation, into an intricate magic knot of love. And then, alas, the love-charm had proved useless to Elslood--as he had known all along, in his heart, that it would be. Any mastery of love was forbidden him, as part of the price of his great sorcerer's power.
And he thought now that the knot of Charmian's golden hair would be of doubtful benefit to any man. One as utterly evil as the Princess could hardly be moved by any charm to anything like love.
Copyright 1979 by Fred Saberhagen
Excerpted from Empire of the East by Saberhagen, Fred Copyright © 2003 by Saberhagen, Fred. Excerpted by permission.
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