All that morning we’d waded upstream, the huge trees hanging their branches overhead, shrouding us in a green gloom. On either side the banks rose, so steep and thickly wooded that we could not have made our way through them fast enough to keep to our schedule.
The river was shallow and sluggish, the bottom firm with sand and gravel, so the way was not particularly hard going. But I disliked this country, with its crowded spaces and its lack of room to manoeuvre. The soldiers in their armour and heavy-visored helmets were tense, too; I could even feel it in the way my driver’s legs gripped the sides of my neck. I had become able to understand the soldiers’ language a little, as one will through constant listening, and I could tell that they were full of doubts about what we were doing, and a lot of them wanted to turn back. But one did not turn back when one was a soldier in the army of Gurkan the Great.
Behind me, all down the river, the army was strung out. The soldiers had started in battle formation, but had begun to straggle long ago, so that they were scattered all down the line of march, trudging through the water. Only we war elephants kept our assigned positions, but because of the narrowness of the stream we could only go in single file. It was not an advance in the proper sense of the word; it was more a weary plod.
Up ahead rose the mountains, reaching as it seemed for the sky. For weeks now we’d been on the march towards them, and the rolling plain on which we had conducted our spring campaign was already a fading memory. Somewhere on those mountains, the remnants of the enemy had retreated, after we’d scattered and routed their legions on the battlefields that lay now far behind. The Lord Gurkan was determined to eradicate these remnants, lest they grow to be a threat in future years; and this was why we were chasing them up these tenebrous slopes.
On my back, the heavy wooden tower swayed awkwardly, the huge curved metal shields making it top-heavy. Ordinarily, the shields would have been taken down in the line of march, but the army was expecting trouble. I was carrying the full complement of four troopers inside the tower, pointing their crossbows nervously at the forest. My driver had even put full combat armour on me this morning, before we started on the trek. I disliked the armour plates, especially those that went on my face and head, because they tended to chafe my trunk. But my driver had been quite firm, so I had not refused.
I would do anything to please my driver. His name does not matter, because to me he was my driver first, last and always. He was a small man, small even by the standards of his people, but broad-shouldered and immensely strong. We’d been together for many years, and he was the one who’d taken me in hand and trained me for my task.
I still remember, as it was yesterday, when I first saw him. I could hardly forget, because he was the first man I’d ever seen.
My family and I had been fleeing the drums that thundered in the distance, full of alien menace, for an entire day. I’d been trotting at my mother’s side, as close as I could, so that my flank brushed against her legs. She was the centre of my existence then, the most powerful being in my universe, and I couldn’t bear to be away from her for even a moment. Even in sleep I curled against her side, so that she grunted in exasperation sometimes and pushed me away with her trunk. But that day of the drums was like nothing even she had ever known.
We would go in one direction, only to hear the thrumming, and turn away in another, only to run once more into the sound of drums, coming closer. Today, knowing how the humans work, I can recognise that we were being driven towards the capture pits, but then we did not know. My mother’s trunk had curled in disquiet, and she’d trumpeted uneasily. I remember how her great wrinkled brown flank had heaved by my side, and how she had paused uncertainly again and again. But in the end she’d led us straight towards the pits, just as the humans had intended her to.
As darkness had fallen, the drums had been joined by lines of glimmering torches, the flicker of fire sending terror shooting through us. We’d rushed confused here and there in the darkness, as the humans drove us back and forth through the lines of trapping pits, their shouts and howls added now to the drums and the fires. I’d tried to stay as close to my mother’s side as I could, but somehow in the night I must have got separated, because suddenly the ground had disappeared under my feet and I fell hard enough to stun me a moment with shock.
To this day I don’t know what had happened to my mother and the others of the family. I don’t know why they did not come back for me, though I cried out for help, and kept crying through the night. I think they got away safely, because I never saw any of them again; none of the others was caught in the pits. I can only presume that my mother had found a way out of the cordon and judged the safety of the entire family as being of greater importance than me. It was a hard choice, but I can’t blame her. In her place, as the leader of the family, I’d have done the same.
Dawn had just lighted up the sky when the humans had come. I’d heard them coming, the sound of their footsteps and voices, and then smelt their rank unfamiliar scent. By then I’d stopped crying out; exhaustion and dehydration having overcome my fear, but at that odour I had started up again with terror, and tried desperately to scramble up the sides of the pit. It was, of course, too steep – the men had known what they were doing. And then, just as I voided my bowels in abject panic, the first of them had appeared at the edge of the pit and stood looking down at me.
Even though it has been years, I can still see him as I saw him then, his broad brown face framed by his heavy black hair, already streaked with grey. He’d stood looking down at me for a long time, alone, not moving, waiting until I’d got over my initial panic and extended my trunk to get a closer whiff of his scent. Only after I’d calmed down had he climbed down into the pit, murmuring soothingly to me all the while.
In the months that had followed, he’d become my only friend, the substitute for the mother who had left me behind in the pit. He’d taught me the words of command I respond to, and fed and groomed and taken care of me. But even he never realised just how well I grew to understand his words and moods, and by extension the words and moods of other humans.
And time passed, and I grew, and grew, until I was by far the largest war elephant in Lord Gurkan’s army, until even the other elephant drivers looked at me with apprehension and muttered fearfully amongst themselves about the damage I might do if I ever ran amok. My driver would say with simple pride that I was the largest elephant he had ever seen, perhaps the largest that had ever been, and pat me as I twined my trunk around him affectionately.
One day Gurkan himself came to look at me. That was the first time I’d seen him, a tall slender figure with a forked beard, dressed as simply as one of his common soldiers. He’d stood by my side, stroking my trunk and talking to my driver, and I’d understood that he was considering taking me as his royal elephant. But in the end he’d decided against it. I was far more useful in the line of battle, with my titanic size and my capacity for violence.
Yes, my driver had trained me to deal out violence, and I had dealt it out on many battlefields in the service of Gurkan the Great. I would wait in line with the other war elephants as the fighting swayed back and forth across the field of battle, waiting for the moment when our troops would move aside and the trumpets would sound the charge. And then we would go in, thundering at the enemy lines, the ground trembling beneath our feet, the enemy soldiers scattering before us in mortal terror. My driver would only have to put the slightest pressure on the sides of my neck with his knees to tell me what to do. I’d charge, swinging my spiked iron ball, trampling the enemy underfoot and picking them up with my trunk and tossing them aside like so many toys. How many times have I not seen enemy troops throw down their weapons and surrender themselves rather than face my charge, and after the battle, cower visibly as they caught sight of me walking past their miserable columns? In time I became, not just the biggest of Gurkan’s elephants, but the most famous, the one they nicknamed the God of War.
What they didn’t realise, not even my driver, was that I didn’t enjoy the fighting and the killing. I hated every moment of it, but I went through it each time because my driver told me to. For him, I would have done anything. I would have walked off the edge of the world.
And it was because I was the God of War that I was out in front of the army today, walking through water under the green tunnel of leaves.
By early afternoon, the level of the disquiet among the soldiers increased sharply.
Long before then, all organisation had disintegrated, and the army was a straggle of men and elephants strung out along the river. The terrain itself seemed to have grown more sinister, the banks higher, the stream narrower, and it had begun to twist and turn, so that if I glanced backward I could hardly see the next elephant in line. The four crossbowmen in the tower on my back were talking together in hushed tones, in which I could clearly detect doubt and fear. I could feel the tension increasing in my driver’s body, too, transmitted to me by every touch, as when he leaned over my neck to scratch me behind the ears.
There had been no opportunity to stop and eat, for men or for elephants. Thirst was, of course, not a problem – all I had to do was squirt a trunkful of river water into my mouth – but I was getting hungry, and a day’s slogging through water will exhaust even an elephant. I could scarcely imagine what the men on foot were going through, weighed down with their armour as they were.
However, to my mind, there seemed to be no reason for the anxiety. The enemy we had fought on the plain was not a worry; they had been so routed and destroyed that they could scarcely think of fighting us until they could gather to reorganise on the high plateaus across the mountains. It was precisely to prevent them from attempting this reorganisation that Gurkan the Great had sent this detachment of his army into the hills. Who else could even think of resisting our armies, ever victorious in every battle they had ever fought?
The previous night, in camp, I’d been tethered at the end of the elephant line, within earshot of the soldier’s cooking fires. I’d listened to their talk of the demons of the hills, ogres and trolls which they had said tore apart anyone who dared enter their realms. The routed enemy, they claimed, must have already met that fate, so it was doubly foolish for Lord Gurkan to send us on a suicide mission. It was at that point that the sergeants had threatened punishment for treason, and the muttering had stopped. Everyone knew the penalty for treason in Gurkan’s army, and that death was much to be preferred.
But now, wading along the river, the fears of the night were stirring again among the warriors, and transmitting themselves to me. Though I tried to keep myself calm, I felt myself increasingly on edge; and though my driver, realising this, tried to soothe me with murmurs and caresses, his own tension was too obvious for me to ignore.
Besides, there was something else.
Increasingly through the hours that passed, I’d become convinced that something was watching us, and following us as we trudged upstream. I could sometimes smell it on the air, a strange sharp odour that I could not identify. But it was there, and on top of everyone’s tension, it made me nervous and edgy.
And yet, when something finally happened, I scarcely recognised it for an attack. In my experience, battles were organised affairs, with formations of our own troops deployed against equivalent formations of the other side. Battle meant the rumble of war drums and trumpets sounding signals from commanders, the clash of arms, and, for us elephants, the frontal assault on the enemy. It did not mean half-seen flickers of movement in the green gloom of the banks, the shaking of leaves and bushes without wind, and noises that sounded like the call of birds.
So when the first arrow cracked into the armour plate near my left eye and ricocheted away, I was so surprised that I nearly reared on my hind legs and upset my riders. It was only the rigid training my driver had imposed on me that kept me from doing precisely that. Even as that first arrow tumbled into the water, the air was suddenly filled with them, arcing through the air to fall all around us. Several more struck my armour and fell away, and my driver threw himself down flat on my neck, shouting the order to me to keep steady. A moment later the crossbowmen in the tower let off their bolts, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what they were aiming at. I couldn’t see a single enemy, only the arrows coming down as thick as rain.
Our soldiers were already going down. Strung out so that they could not cover each other, wading up to their thighs in the water, weighed down by their armour, and faced with an invisible enemy, they hadn’t a chance. Shouting, the sergeants tried to rally them, but it was already too late. All around me the soldiers were falling, their blood staining the water red. Behind me I could hear screams as those of our men behind the next bend of the stream were attacked and died in their turn without a chance to fight back. In only a few moments, except for the soldiers on my back and my driver, I was alone.
And yet the arrows came, faster than ever, and now they were all aimed at me.
I was completely confused. If this had been a normal battle, I’d have known precisely what to do, even isolated and under attack. War elephants have to be adaptable to circumstances. But here I didn’t have any room at all, not even to turn round without presenting my flank to the arrows, and there seemed to be as many of the enemy behind me as in front. Paralysed by indecision, I paused, while the arrows splashed into the water around me and struck my armour and the wooden tower.
That pause may have given the enemy the confidence they needed. Suddenly, not far away, some figures stepped out of the forest and onto the rocks by the river banks. Raising their bows, they drew aim at me and let fly. I could see the arrows flashing through the air, too fast to avoid – and, stuck where I was, I couldn’t even try.
And then my driver screamed, a cry of agony that struck me to the heart.
If there is one thing guaranteed to enrage me till I literally take leave of my senses, it is to hurt my driver.
I have no clear idea what I did next. I have a vague memory of rushing upstream at those little figures, the water splashing up in waves as I went. I think I remember swatting aside arrows with my armoured trunk, charging far too fast for the suddenly terrified enemy to retreat back up the bank. I’m sure I recall picking up one of them with my trunk, holding him aloft, and smashing him down on the rocks until there was nothing left of him to smash. I must have trampled down several more, crushing them under my feet. Shrieking mad with fury, I heaved myself out of the water and followed the survivors up the bank, chasing them until the wooden tower and heavy metal shields on my back caught in the branches, until the ground underfoot suddenly slid away, and, staggering desperately to keep my balance, I fell.
I may have fallen on a rock. Something struck the side of my head a terrific blow, strong enough even through my armour to stun me, and for a little while I knew nothing more.
When I regained consciousness, the first thing I noted was that I was lying on rocks, the hard bulk of them pressing on my body. The next thing was the smell. Having been part of Gurkan’s army for so long, I’d become used to the complex mix of odours including leather, sweat, cooking food, the stink of the latrine pits, and the smell of the soldiers themselves. This smell was sharp, strange, alien to me – it was the odour I’d sensed on the wind before the attack.
There were the voices too – many voices, speaking a language I had never heard before. But one of the things I’d learned early on in Lord Gurkan’s army was that the tone of human voices conveys as much information as the words themselves, probably much more information than the average human realises. And listening to this unknown speech, I could tell that there were many conflicting emotions amongst the speakers – a lot of anger and fear, but some excitement and fascination too.
My head was still throbbing, and for a long time I lay where I was, listening to the voices, unwilling to move too suddenly or open my eyes. I could understand that I was the centre of attention of a fairly large crowd of people, and that whatever they were saying, it was mostly to do with me.
Finally, some of the voices began to drift away, and the pain in my head began to lessen. I shook my head, flapped my ears, and opened my eyes as I clambered to my feet.
I was in a rough enclosure, obviously thrown together with great haste. It was made of logs and stone, lashed together with ropes. All around the outside of the enclosure was a ring of faces, staring up at me – faces full of hostility, or fear, or curiosity.
For the first time, I got a good look at the “ogres” and “trolls” who had attacked us. The “demons” were small people; the tallest wouldn’t have come up to much more than shoulder-level to the average trooper of Gurkan’s army. They were sturdy, broad-shouldered, with pale skin and round faces with narrow slanted eyes. Their clothing was as remarkable as their appearance, for they were dressed as if they were part of the forest, in green overalls and hats, with frills designed to resemble the leaves. I now knew how they had followed us so easily and attacked us without being seen.
Many of them had bows in their hands, some with arrows notched and pointing up at me. Although I knew the walls of the corral were too weak to hold me if I made a determined effort to break out, and even though I was aware that I could survive numerous arrow wounds – for I have taken my share of arrows on the battlefield – these arrows made me pause. I was still groggy from the blow to my head, and slow; and before I could break down the wall, those arrows would be streaking for my eyes. I wasn’t afraid of being killed – without my driver, I had nothing to live for anyway. But I was frightened of being blinded. Blind, I could do nothing, not even take revenge. So I stood where I was, looking at the green-clad men, who looked back at me over their levelled arrows.
Beyond them, now, I could see others – small people, like the green-clad warriors. Women and children, and also a few old men, sparse white whiskers on their faces. They gawked at me, pointing, the children chattering shrilly, and it came to me that I was probably the first elephant they had ever seen.
From where I was, I couldn’t see the river. The trees on the slope behind me screened it from view, but I could see shattered branches showing the way I had come in my furious charge. The thought of the charge reminded me of the battle, and I became aware that the heavy wooden tower on my back had gone, along with most of my battle armour. I had no idea what had happened to the soldiers in the tower.
I had begun to feel acutely hungry by now, as well as thirsty, but there was no way to convey my hunger and thirst to these people. I didn’t even know whether they had any idea of what food an elephant might eat. If only my driver had been here, he would have fed and watered me. My driver had always thought of my welfare before anything else, even his own.
The thought of my driver brought a wave of such grief over me that I squeezed my eyes shut, and curled my trunk under my neck. In that moment, I wished I had been killed by that first arrow, so that I’d never have had to endure a moment without him. The grief was so great that it overcame my hunger and thirst, and along with my physical tiredness caused exhaustion so great that I knelt back down on the mossy rocks and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When I woke, it was to the sensation of someone stroking my forehead. For a long moment I imagined it was my driver giving me a rubdown, and lay there enjoying the sensation. Then I remembered that my driver was gone, and that meant that whoever was stroking me was a stranger. I would have lashed out with my trunk at that moment, but I could feel no hostility from the person stroking me – nothing but tenderness.
Moving slowly so as not to cause fright, I opened my eyes and pushed myself up on my chest. The person stroking me stepped quickly back, one hand still raised, and stared up into my eyes. Even sitting on my chest, my eyes were higher than he was, for it was a boy of perhaps thirteen or fourteen.
Tentatively, saying something in a soft voice, he reached out to touch me again. I responded to the touch despite myself, rubbing my forehead against his tiny hand, and reaching out to sniff at him with my trunk. He squealed at that, like an elephant calf, and laughed breathlessly.
That squeal of laughter brought men, shouting angrily as they peered over the top of the stone and wood corral wall, their anger aimed at the boy. It was obvious that he’d come inside without their knowledge, and that they were ordering him out of the enclosure. He looked up at the men, back at me, and said something to me that conveyed an impression of sadness. I touched him with my trunk and sniffed at him, and he wrapped his arms round my trunk for a moment. But there were more angry shouts from the men, so the boy climbed over the wall and vanished, dejection in every movement he made.
Looking around, I became aware that there were only a few men on guard now, instead of the throng that had been around me earlier, and that it was almost evening. The men who were on guard, however, were settling in for the night, and began making preparations for a cooking fire not far from the corral. As they worked, they kept glancing toward me, and a couple always had arrows ready and pointing.
My thirst and hunger had returned now, my stomach clenching painfully, and I could hear the rumbling noises from my gut. The men must have heard them and decided that something should be done, for after some talk among themselves, all but three or four of them went away and returned, just as darkness was falling, with armfuls of tall reeds, which they tossed over the wall. It wasn’t grass, but I could eat it, and it took the edge off my hunger. As I swallowed the last of it, they brought up some river water in a wooden bucket and balanced it on top of the wall, from where I could easily suck it up with my trunk. Now that I had some food inside me, I felt much better, and looked around me with curiosity.
Night had fallen now, and the darkness was thick under the trees, but there was the distant glimmer of fires – not just the fire of the men guarding me, but others, further up the slope, dim and flickering, but telling of a military encampment, like one of those in which I’d spent most of my life, or a village. From that direction came the distant voices of women and children, so I decided that it was probably a village. And that meant, in turn, that these people hadn’t been driven by blind hatred when they had attacked us – they had probably imagined that they were defending their village.
Lord Gurkan would not see it that way, though – and when he heard of what had happened down on the river, Gurkan’s vengeance would be terrible.
I was still wondering whether this would be a good or bad thing, in view of what these people had done to my driver, when the tiredness took over again and I went back to sleep.
That day must have caused me more damage than I’d thought.
As I slept, I had a curious dream. In it I was standing in the middle of a town, like the great cities of the plain I’d passed through on campaign, but I was taller than all the buildings. I was so big that I could look down even on the tallest of the golden spires and marble domes, and I could look out over the city, from wall to wall, as flames spread through it and the buildings burned to ashes. In my dreams, the people came to shelter under my legs, begging for my protection from the fire, but I could not move at all, only curl my trunk around them and draw them to me, in an effort to keep them safe until the fire passed them by.
And then I woke, and between my legs, curled against my chest, I could feel a small shape, breathing deeply in sleep. From the smell I knew who it was, the boy who had been with me earlier. I curled my trunk around him carefully, and lay still, not daring to move so as not to wake him, or, worse, to alert the guards that he was here with me.
High overhead, through the branches, the bright point of light that was a star moved across a patch of sky, and I watched it pass, and wondered if it was true, as the soldiers said, that it was the soul of someone who had died. And I wondered if the soul was looking down at me.
The boy mumbled in his sleep and hugged my trunk. It was a chilly night, out on the rocks, and he must have been grateful of the warmth. I was grateful to him as well, for the company. Such small things are more important than most realise.
Out by the dying fire, my guards snored until it was their turn to wake, and somewhere in the forest, an owl hooted.
The star moved across the patch of sky.
The boy’s name was Cithan. He told me that himself, pointing at his chest and repeating it several times, after the guards had finally quit ordering him away and left him alone. He didn’t seem to belong to anybody - no parents or master came to haul him off, though with daybreak the crowd of yesterday began to form again.
By now, I was feeling much better; my head had cleared and a second meal of rushes and water had given me energy. I could probably have broken out now, because I had my strength back and because my guards had relaxed their extreme caution of yesterday. But I did not, because the boy was with me, sitting between my legs and talking away. It seemed to me that he not only had no family, he had no friends, nobody to talk to.
I had met kids like him before, amongst the towns of the plain – orphans, children whom nobody wanted, not exactly outcasts, but existing on the fringes of society, living on their wits. Some of them were orphans, some runaways, but they had one thing in common, the desperate desire for a friend. Often, they would sneak into the encampments and hang around the soldiers’ tents, not looking for food or money, but just a bit of companionship. From what I could understand, some of them went on to become soldiers in their turn, and I often wondered if they fathered children who were left, similarly parentless, in the course of their travels.
Over the next few days, Cithan began to spend almost all his time with me. By then, I had begun to acquire more of a feel for these peoples’ language, both from Cithan’s talk and from carefully listening to the speech of the guards and the people who came to stare at me. It was a completely different language from that used by Lord Gurkan’s troops, but I was listening more to the tone of the words than to their meaning, and little by little I began to understand something of it.
There was a word they used to refer to me. The closest I could get to its meaning is “war-beast”. That may not have been the exact term, but it was a good term, something which depicted me perfectly. I might not have been the God of War, but I was a war-beast, sure enough. I had been a war beast for longer than I cared to recall. Even if I never fought in another war, I would never be anything else.
I thought then, whatever men call me, to myself I shall be the war-beast from now on.
A week after I’d been captured, my corral had begun filling up with dung, and also the crude stone walls were breaking down. It was obvious that the enclosure would not serve to hold me much longer, and once more I began to have thoughts of breaking out. Then one morning the men came with ropes – thick ropes, but not nearly as thick as those used by the drivers of Gurkan’s army to tether us elephants. These people had no real idea, I realised, of my strength.
While several of them pointed spears and arrows up at me, others bent at my feet and tied the ropes round my legs. I followed them out of the stinking corral, immensely glad to be away from it. Citahn walked beside me, holding on to my trunk.
They led me down to the river, where I took the opportunity to spray water over myself and drink down as much as I could. I would have happily rolled in the water and washed the filth away, but the men were pulling at the ropes, and I had to wade across and up to the other side.
Here, among the slopes, we came at last to the main village. Lean brown dogs came running out, took a look at me, and retreated barking to a safe distance. Women and children, many of whom I recognised, came to see me, also from a safe distance. The guards merely held the ropes – it was Cithan who led me through the village to a cleared space on the far side, where they tied me to the trunks of two large trees.
Over the next days, life settled into a routine. They would feed me twice a day, mornings and afternoons. The food wasn’t adequate either in quality or quantity, but it was better than nothing and in any case I was in no danger of starvation. And they would take me down to the river, where I would be allowed to bathe myself, rolling in the water, while Cithan splashed around me with glee.
Cithan was with me almost all the time now. As I’d suspected, he had no home or family, and ate what he was given by villagers as leftovers. In his own way he was an immensely courageous and resourceful – I couldn’t imagine the bravery it had taken for him, coming from a people who’d never seen elephants before, to have come to me and tried to make friends. And, increasingly, the other people of the village began asking him questions about me, and he answered them. I didn’t know what he said, but they went away satisfied.
A few times I’d caught up Cithan in my trunk and lifted him on to my shoulders. The first time he’d stiffened up in shock, but then laughed and hugged me. Soon he got used to it, and now when I went down to the river, he’d always ride my shoulders there and back, the people staring up at him with wide eyes.
One of the things I tried to understand was why they hadn’t killed me or let me go. I couldn’t see what good I was doing to them, because all I did was eat, and they hadn’t tried to put me to work. I got the impression that they were awed by my prowess as the “war-beast”, and wanted to figure out a way of making me part of their own military. They had enemies further in the hills, against whom they thought I would be a formidable weapon, if only they could find a way to use me. And yet, because they hadn’t ever encountered elephants before, they hadn’t the slightest idea of how this was to be achieved.
By this time I was scarcely ever guarded. Except when I went down to the river, when men with pikes and spears accompanied us, Cithan was the only one who stayed with me. I could, really, have got away – but where should I go?
Now, more than ever, I felt the immense loneliness of my existence. Without my driver, cut off from my world, I was completely isolated. Cithan was a friend, but he was only a boy – and not a boy who had anyone to take care of him either. If I went away, even assuming I got away uninjured, what would he do? And as for me, where should I go? All around me were the hills, and the only way I knew was the river, downstream, to the old battlefields of the plain. I could never get down that way fast enough to avoid getting caught.
And at the same time, I was growing conscious of something else. Gurkan’s army would be on its way, and it would be coming in strength now, and this time it would be prepared. Those of our detachment who had escaped, as surely many had, would have told him of the ambush, and Gurkan never, ever, repeated a mistake. This time, the tribe’s warriors would not have a chance, but they wouldn’t know they didn’t have a chance. They’d won a victory over a disorganised and unprepared detachment. They would try the same tactics against the main army, and they’d be massacred.
I wished I could warn them, but there wasn’t a thing I could do. Unless...
Little by little, I began to germinate an idea.
The day of the battle dawned like any other. I’d gone down to the river with Cithan, and noticed nothing out of the way. The last day or two there had been no guards at all, but as we came back up the path, a squad of warriors with pikes appeared from the direction of the village, surrounding us excitedly, and talking so quickly I couldn’t understand them at all. Obviously, something was going on, and it didn’t take too much effort to understand what that might be.
By the time I reached the village the scene was of confusion. People were running around, apparently trying to ready themselves to evacuate at short notice. The warriors pulled me back to the trees and tied me tightly to them, and stood not far away, darting hostile looks in my direction. They seemed to have remembered suddenly where I’d come from.
From further up the hill, a number of green-clad warriors appeared, carrying bows and arrows and vanishing down towards the river. I knew by now that the tribe had a military camp separate from the village, one which I’d not seen but which I’d managed to locate without much trouble. That camp was a major factor in the plan I’d made, the one by which I just might be able to save the village.
Lack of exercise and underfeeding had sapped some of my strength over the last weeks, but I hadn’t been the biggest and strongest elephant in Gurkan’s army for nothing. When I lowered my head and smashed into the nearer of the two trees, it splintered and collapsed with a crash, and the guards cried out and scattered. Before they could get their wits back, it was a simple matter for me to break the weak ropes. That they had been stretched tight merely made them easier to snap.
I raised my trunk, I trumpeted with all my might at the sky. The guards, already frightened and off balance, fell back in terror, just as I’d intended them to. I scarcely needed the brief charge I made to send them running for their lives. It had been easier than I’d thought, so far – I hadn’t had to hurt anyone. Yet.
Cithan had wandered off to find out what was happening, but now he came running back. I had a moment of doubt, as I wondered what to do with him. The course I was about to follow would put me in immense danger, and, if he remained with me, it would inevitably put him in danger too. But even as I turned away, he ran after me, calling out, and I realised that in this terrain I couldn’t outrun him. And, rushing beside me, he could very easily get hurt from the weapons that would soon be hurled in my direction. I might even trample him without meaning to.
So, very reluctantly, I wrapped my trunk around him and hoisted him on to my back. He clung to me, trembling, and I realised that he was terrified. I’d almost forgotten that despite his assurance with me, he was still only a boy.
Up we went, then, through the village and along the track to the military encampment. I made no attempt to avoid any obstacle, smashing aside anything that stood in my way, trumpeting to warn people off. Speed was of the essence – the entire success of my plan depended on how fast I could move.
Halfway up the hill, a long branch hung low over the track, at eye level to me. I didn’t even pause – sliding my tusks under it, I slapped my trunk down on top and wrenched it downwards. The branch snapped off in my trunk, and I was about to throw it away when, rounding a bend in the track, I encountered an entire squad of the tribe’s warriors.
I couldn’t say whether it was my training or instinct that took over at that moment. Wrapping my trunk around the branch, I swung it round in a huge arc, smashing it across the trail at torso level for a human. Struck by the mass of twigs and leaves, the line of men went down, swept off the trail like a broom sweeping dust off a garden path. I hardly had to break my stride to avoid stepping on them. Despite its size and unwieldiness, I kept the branch – it was a handy tool.
A few moments later, we thundered into the encampment.
It was just where I’d placed it, a double line of long huts with an open space between. This open space was full of men, hurriedly pulling on their green outfits, stringing bows, and getting spears ready. They paused, looking up at me, paralysed with astonishment.
Here I came, the war-beast, trunk raised to the sky, ears held out, trumpeting loud enough to make the heavens shake. Here I came, the long tree branch swinging, swatting men aside like flies. Lowering my head, I charged the nearest hut, smashing it into splinters with a blow of my forehead. It was far too flimsy to bear an elephant’s charge.
A javelin thudded into the ground by my foot, a near miss, and the first arrows began whistling by my ears.
Screaming, I turned, and came racing back. These people had only ever seen me move slowly, wading through the river or hobbled by ropes. They had no idea just how fast an elephant can run in a frontal charge, and how terrifying one can be.
I was no longer just an elephant, nor even a war-beast. I was a mountain of death coming down on them much faster than they could run. I was the God of War incarnate, shaking the world as I came. In that moment, I was a monster out of their worst nightmares come alive. I was the mouth of hell, I was terror on four gigantic legs, I was Retribution.
Yelling with fright, they dropped their weapons and scattered.
I eradicated the camp. I took almost a delight in that destruction, stamping the huts into matchwood, crushing the stacks of spears and javelins into the ground, lifting the pots by the cooking fires high and flinging them into the forest. Except for a few arrows shot at me from the forest, there was no opposition.
Devastation achieved, I turned back on my tracks. The second part of my plan would be much more dangerous, because the warriors would be getting over their initial shock and surprise, and down on the trail and by the river I’d have far less manoeuvring room. Before going back down, I took a last look around to see if there was anything I’d missed destroying, when I noticed the small hut.
It was set away from the others, under the trees, and for a moment I was tempted to let it go. But it might be an armoury, and the more I could disrupt the tribe’s war-fighting ability, the more likely I was to be able to force them into withdrawing rather than getting into a suicidal clash with Gurkan’s army. So, although I could not really afford the time, I turned aside to demolish this hut as well.
Running at top speed, I was almost on it before the door opened and a man with a bandaged leg hobbled out...
There are times when one is taken so much by surprise that one’s heart seems to stop in one’s chest. My body reacted before my mind did, my reflexes taking over instantly, digging my feet into the ground so I managed to stop my charge, sliding to a stop in a shower of dust and pebbles a moment before I’d have struck the man and knocked him down flat. For a long, incredulous moment, I stood looking down at him, and he, up at me. And then there was a movement of his hand, a little gesture, and I knelt, automatically, to let him climb upon my back.
Yes, it was he, the one who had taken the place of my mother. It was he, my life, my purpose of existence, the one I thought I had lost forever, my driver.
Cithan was still clutching on to my neck – I’d almost forgotten about him, but he was still with me, hanging on through it all – and my driver had to get on behind him, because the boy would not yield the space. It was awkward for him, with his hurt leg, but there was nothing for it. Although incredulous with the joy that was still sending shocks through my body, I could not forget my main purpose, and now I had less time than ever to spare.
Picking up my trusty branch, once again I rushed down the trail. A few of the tribe’s warriors – these were almost certainly those whom I’d already knocked down earlier – were coming up, but saw me and ran away in fear. More would be coming, though, at any moment. I couldn’t let myself be caught between two groups of them.
It was time to leave the trail.
There is little that can resist an elephant in the full force of his charge, and the trees in this part of the forest were far enough apart so that they did not provide much in the way of obstacles. I went between them like a shadow, silent now, leaving the village with its panicking residents on my right. My driver, knowing almost instantly what I was planning to do, guided me by the pressure of his hands on the sides of my neck, but I scarcely needed the guidance. I knew the terrain better than he, and I knew just what I was about to do.
Down by the river, a line of the warriors had assembled. They were nervous and restive, knowing that something was going on up on the slopes, something which had stopped reinforcements from coming down to them, and yet unable to go up and see for themselves because they knew Gurkan’s army was coming. Their attention was divided between downstream and uphill, so when I came rushing down on them from upstream, from their rear, they were taken utterly by surprise. It was far easier than I’d imagined; as soon as I began to swing around my branch, they dropped their weapons and ran away as fast as they could.
The tribe’s military had ceased to exist as an organised force. There would be no more fighting from them today.
I waded into the river, gasping, and squirted a trunkful of water into my mouth. I was still trying to assimilate my utter victory; only now did I realise that I’d not expected to survive it. Even more than anything else, I had found my driver.
Even as I thought of him, he slipped down my side, standing up to his thighs in the water, and leaned his head against my side. He was shaking, and I thought he’d been wounded again, but then I realised he was crying.
As the tears dripped from his eyes like rain, I caressed him with my trunk and wished I could cry too, that I had that human ability. And then I heard another sound of crying – it was Cithan, on my neck, and he too was weeping as though his heart would break.
Gently, I lifted him down, and set him down in the river beside my driver. I hugged him to me, as he was hugging my leg, and snuffled in his ear until he stopped crying and began to smile. My driver stood watching, and then said a few words, tentatively, in the villagers’ language. He must have picked it up during his weeks as a prisoner.
Cithan, still clinging to me, replied. I could understand enough to be able to tell that my driver was asking him to go up to the village while he could, and he was refusing to leave. In truth, he had nowhere to go; there was nothing for him there, and by now the villagers would be in full flight anyway.
“All right then,” my driver said at last, with such clear gestures that I could not possibly mistake his words. “Come with us – after all, I’ll need an apprentice, and you might as well fill the part.”
If I could have smiled at that moment, I would have, as I lifted them one by one to my shoulders.
From not far away downstream, another elephant trumpeted. Gurkan the Great’s troops were coming.
With a last look up at the slopes above, we waded down the river to meet them.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012