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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
“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