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A Cat of Silvery Hue

Time Conquers All…

Led by Lord Milo the Undying One, the men of the Horseclans are slowly reuniting the continent once known as the United States of America using the strength of their swords and their very special mental talents. But the Ehleenee, too, have dreams of power—dreams that have led them into a full-scale religious war of conquest.

Lord Milo must enlist the help of men like Bili Morguhn, whose skill with axe, sword, and mind control makes him a natural clan leader, if he is to contain the menace of the Ehleenee rebels and save civilization from destruction…

Book 4 of the Horseclans series

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Robert Adams

Robert Adams (1932-1990) was a career soldier whose Horseclans series drew on his military background to lend verisimilitude to the exploits of 26th Century of immortal mutant warriors in a balkanized North America. The Coming of the Horseclans (1975) was the first of 18 novels in the sequence, which ended, with The Clan of the Cats (1988), only on account of the author’s death.

His non-Horseclans work included two other series. Castaways in Time (1980) and its five sequels were a mix of alternate history and time travel. The Stairway to Forever and Monsters and Magicians (both 1988) were the only volumes to appear of a projected fantasy series.

He also co-edited several anthologies, among them Barbarians (1985, with Martin H. Greenberg and Charles H. Waugh), four Magic in Ithkar volumes (1985-87, with Andre Norton), Robert Adams' Book of Alternate Worlds (1987, with Pamela Crippen Adams and Martin H. Greenberg) and Robert Adams' Book of Soldiers (1988, same co-editors).

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Excerpt

Prologue

The shaven scalp of the tall, broad-shouldered young warrior glinted in the light of the rising sun, as did the burnished sur­faces of his suit of three-quarter armor and the dolphin-shaped silver goblet in his right hand. Though heavier and squarely masculine, his face bore a startling similarity to those of the two tall, handsome women who stood before him, their hair but slightly darker than his bushy cornsilk eyebrows.

The large, battlemented building, atop the flat roof of which they stood, was known as Morguhn Hall and was the young man’s ancestral home. The hall crowned a gently sloping hill and, to north, south, east and west, as far as the eye might see, the fields and woodlands and rolling leas were all his domain, the Thoheekahtohn of Morguhn.

To their left, a tall column of smoke arose from the rear courtyard, wherein had been laid the funeral pyre of the man who had been husband to the two women and father to the young warrior. Though the man had died of natural causes, the six hacked corpses which had shared his pyre had fallen in battle just hours before their cremations; among them had been a younger son of the two women, Djef Morguhn.

As the hall had but recently been invested, the bailey to their right lay cluttered, and jerrybuilt pens were tightly packed with hundreds of cattle, sheep and goats. The small open space remaining was now filled with above threescore stamping, whickering warhorses, astride most of which were armored and fully armed fighting men. The majority of these riders wore the scalemail hauberks and open-faced helms which identified them as Middle Kingdoms Freefighters or mercenary cavalrymen—armed with broadsword or heavy saber, two-foot hide buckler shod with iron, long, broad dirk and a few short-shafted, well-balanced darts. Ten of the horsemen were alike as peas in a pod, being Horseclansmen but recently arrived from the Sea of Grass, thousands of kaiee to the west

Of the remaining men, all save one were armed with broadswords and spears, and wore three-quarter plate very similar to that of the young man atop the hall. This last man, clad in a flowing white robe, was armed with daggers, a full dozen darts and a doublecurved yaghatan. Where all of the other men’s faces, though tanned by sun and weather, were either olive or fair, his was the rich dark brown of old leather.

One who might have been a younger duplicate of the dark-skinned mounted man stood behind the young man on the rooftop. His name was Eeshmahehl and he was a physician from the Black Kingdoms, far away to the north and east of this land. A rail-thin lad, his own skin almost blue in its blackness, stood by the physician’s side, holding with both hands a gleaming brass bowl. He was but recently freed from an odious bondage to a perverted nobleman and had volun­tarily apprenticed himself to the tall, graceful brown-skinned man; his hated master had called him Peeos, but all here used his proper name, Peeair.

Eeshmahehl was placing a fresh bandage over a recent wound in the young man’s scalp. As he performed this task, he talked constantly, explaining to Peeair just what he was doing and why, for so had the master physician, Ahlee, im­parted his extensive knowledge to Eeshmahehl. The language he spoke was Kweebehkeekos, for, though Peeair was from an exotic land far to the south, this far-northern tongue was enough like his native speech to be easily comprehensible.

Lifting a thick cloth pad, damp with some liquid from the bowl held by Peeair, the physician briefly held the pad under the lad’s fine-boned nose, slightly canted since a blow of his former master’s fist had broken it. “What is the smell, Peeair?”

“Brandy, master.”

Eeshmahehl nodded, placed the pad over the healing wound, held it with his left hand while taking a length of rolled bandage from the compartmented bowl. “Just so, Peeair, just so. And why is the inner bandage so often soaked with brandy, do you remember?”

The boy closed his eyes and knitted his brows in concen­tration. “To...because wounds covered with such dressings seem to heal quicker and cleaner?”

“Very good, my son, very good. Ahláh has granted you a good memory, which makes me certain that the Elder Mas­ters will quickly confirm you as my apprentice, when you re­turn with me to Zahrtohgah...Now, set down the basin, Peeair, and hand me the thoheeks’ helmet.”

Gingerly, the sinewy brown hands settled the weighty helm atop the thick bandages, then fumblingly commenced to thread straps through buckles.

Smiling, one of the two widows stepped forward, saying, “Please, Master Eeshmahehl, allow me. You are inexperi­enced at it, but my sister and I helped arm our father and brothers before we were half the age of young Peeair.”

While the two women fastened the neckpiece to helm, lowered the cheekpieces, then set about checking and tighten­ing the fit of various other components of their son’s set of plate, a tall, much-scarred man of forty or so emerged from a corner tower and strode purposefully the length of the side wall, his Pitzburk plate clanking and the plume on his helm nodding.

After ascending the stone steps to the roof, he paced over to the young thoheeks, rendered a military salute and said, “The column is formed up, Duke Bili. Each horse bears a skin of watered wine and a wallet of war rations. Master Ahlee said that it would be neither painful or injurious to the beast, so I’ve had your black charger saddled and fitted with a chamfron.”

The thoheeks nodded curtly. “Very good, captain. You may return, now. I’ll join you, shortly.”

Saluting once more, the officer spun and retraced his steps, while Bili embraced and kissed each of his mothers, saying, “When the Undying High Lady Aldora and her dragoons ar­rive, point them in the direction of the rebels’ retreat. Tell them that his grace rides with us and wishes them to join us.”

Mother Behrnees nodded briskly. “We will, Bili. But, ere you ride…you really should make your peace with Count Djeen.”

Bili’s mouth thinned into a grim line. “There is no peace to be made, Mother. The tail does not wag the dog. I, not Count Djeen, am lord here, a fact which I had to make abun­dantly clear to him!”

Mother Mahrnee’s blond braids swished as she shook her head. “Admittedly, he did provoke you, son, but he is a very proud man. You could have taken him to a place apart You should not have humiliated him before everyone in the hall.”

The thoheeks snorted harshly. “When did he hesitate to call me to task, to question my every word, before whoever happened to be nearby, Mother? No, the time was overripe for him and everyone else to be made aware that this is now my duchy and that I will order it and its affairs in my way. Now, I must go.”

When the last scale-clad trooper had cleared the courtyard, Feelahks Sami Kahrtuh, the castellan, saw the heavy, thick gates shut and the two massive bars dropped into place, but the outer grille of wrought iron he left raised, for with the would-be rebels in full flight, hotly pursued by Duke Bili’s stout little band, there were no rams to threaten the entry portals.

Old Komees Djeen Morguhn, retired strahteegos of the Confederation Army and a soldier for most of his sixty-odd years, limped along the length of the wall and up the stairs to the roof, where the ladies still stood, watching their son’s column re-form and set off down the hill at a brisk trot. The plates of the old man’s set of proof scraped loudly each time he leaned against the wall to swing his stiff leg up onto the next step. His visor was raised so his one eye might do the work of two, and the shiny brass hook which had replaced his left hand sparkled in the morning sunlight.

He limped over to the ladies, muttering, “Damned foolish­ness, that’s what it is, and no mistake! Probably get himself and half his troop killed for a piece of senseless stupidity! The tower has already spotted the van of the Confederation kahtahfraktoee, why not let professionals handle this matter of pursuit and harassment, eh?”

“Sun and Wind, my lord count,” snapped Mother Behrnees, “what do you want? For more years than I care to recall, you chivvied our Bili’s father to forsake his passive, peaceful ways. Now you would condemn the son for being actively warlike! But I think you’ve learned better than to do so to his face, have you not?”

The scarred, wrinkled features flushed hotly. “The young whippersnapper! To so abase me before my wife and daugh­ter and everyone else in this hall! And after all I’ve done and tried to do for him! That act, alone, shows how dangerous is his immaturity!”

“Now hold!” Mother Mahrnee’s tone was cold and brittle as midwinter ice. “Lord count, think you. When did you ever shrink from patronizing or upbraiding Bilibefore all and sun­dry? How long did you think a proud man would submit to such abuse and humiliation?”

The nobleman’s lips made as if to spit. “But he’s no man, dammit, he’s a murderous, hotheaded boy in a man’s body. He needs guidance, discipline!”

Mother Mahrnee smiled grimly. “Bili, your lord, is less than two moons shy of eighteen summers, lord count, and he is a seasoned warrior...as you have reason to know, would you but admit the fact He has fought battles and single combats; he has commanded men and earned their re­spect. King Gilbuht of Harzburk saw fit to knight him on the field, investing him with the Order of the Blue Bear!

“He has done as much as any veteran. He has bedded no­blewomen and tumbled serving girls, one at least within this hall, he has fought and pillaged and razed and raped his way through at least two intakings. Though he is as stark a war­rior as you are likely to meet, he is no braggart or hector, preferring to let his scars and his honors and the strength of his arm tell of his prowess.”

“Fagh! The accomplishments of a northern barbarian pocket princeling!” snorted Komees Djeen, derisively. “But, as I told him, a thoheeks must have more than a strong arm and an overgrown battle-axe to rule in Morguhn! Why, the arrogant young puppy even attempted to murder the High Lord. Sun and Wind, my ladies, this isn’t some blood-soaked barbarian kingdom, where the lords rule by steel and rope!”

Mother Mahrnee’s laugh was harsh. “No wonder you were so successful a strahteegos—your maneuvers are nothing short of amazing! Up until the eve of the very day that his illness claimed him, were you not urging Bili’s sire to rule in that very way you now claim to abhor—badgering him to hang the Ehleen kooreeos and all his priests, and to have off the heads of Vahrohnos Myros and half a score of petty lords of the old blood! One might think, on the basis of your past preachments, that you’d be overjoyed with your new lord, not ceaselessly nitpicking and criticizing him in public and in pri­vate.”

The old man stamped a foot in his angry frustration. “But last night, to try to slay a Kinsman over so petty a matter—”

“The High Lord does not fault him,” stated Mother Mahrnee flatly. “Why then should you? The High Lord told my sister and me that, had he been in Bili’s place, considering last night’s dangers and turmoil, he might well have done the same thing to a subordinate—Kinsman or no—who had seen fit to disobey orders and desert his assigned post. I repeat, Count Djeen, why do you continue to harp on a matter which the Undying High Lord, who was the only injured party, has seen fit to utterly dismiss?

“I’ll tell you why!” Mother Behrnees’ blue eyes flashed fire and her voice cracked like a lash. “Pique, petulance and pettishness are what now drive our Komees Djeen, sister! So you waste breath trying to reason with him. Showing his breeding, Bili respected age and deferred to military experience; where­upon the good Komees seized upon this respect and defer­ence as a lever to cant his lord in directions contrary to his nature. After swallowing far more censure and disrespect than would the average nobleman, our son enlightened Count Djeen, made it clear to him whose hand holds the whip. Count Djeen has for so long been issuing uncontested orders and manipulating the lives of younger men that he is now peeved beyond bearing to be confronted by a young man who not only owns the power to command him, but who re­fuses to be manipulated!’’

“Madam, you go too far!” His gnarled right hand had unconsciously sought his dirk hilt and his single eye glowered.

Hotly, Mother Mahrnee’s voice cut in. “Oh, no, Count Djeen, not nearly far enough! Do you truly think you’ll need that dirk to still us from stating the bare truth? Or don’t you think you’ve enough Morguhn blood on your hands?”

He opened his mouth, but so enraged was he that he could not speak, as she ruthlessly went on. “Poor Bili blames him­self for his brother’s death, but it is you who must bear that onus, Count Djeen. You and Spiros browbeat him into allow­ing Djef—who though but six moons younger was much less seasoned, having been reared at Eeree, which fights fewer wars than Harzburk and is internally peaceful—to lead last night’s sortie.

“As you well know, Bili had envisaged and laid out a plan to simply fire the stores and engines, then slay as many of the officers and priests as darts or arrows could reach, capturing an officer or two, if they chanced to run in the proper direc­tion, but on no account closing with enemies who so far out­numbered the sally band. But Djef, in his youthful inexperience, chose to disregard not only his brother’s very good plan but the equally good advice of Captain Raikuh. He charged an armed and fully aroused camp with only a dozen dragoons, and no one of them even mounted! It was only be­cause Chief Hwahltuh, seeing their predicament, led his clansmen to their aid and then covered the withdrawal with his bowmen, that they—any of them!—got back here.

“Well, Count Djeen, your insistence that all men’s lives be so ordered as to always accord with your selfish dictates has exacted a high price. Six of those brave dragoons are now dead, along with two of the Sanderz clansmen. Djef paid the ultimate cost for his rashness, and Bili, because he is a man who accepts full responsibility for his actions—no matter whose words may have influenced those actions—will proba­bly castigate himself for the rest of his life.”

At last he managed to get a few words past the rage-con­stricted tightness of his throat “I will now return to my du­ties, ladies, I—”

“You’ll withdraw when you’ve our leave, Count Djeen," stated Mother Behrnees. “For we are not the ‘barbarian trol­lops’ you once saw fit to name us, when you were attempting to dissuade our late husband from marrying us. No, we are the granddaughters of a duke, the daughters of a duke, the cousins-german of a duke, the sisters of a duke, the widows of a duke and the mothers of a duke! You’ll accord us the respect due us or, by Sun and Wind, you’ll suffer the conse­quences!

“Yes, Count Djeen, you might do well to remember that you no longer are dealing with poor, weak-willed Hwahruhn, whom you could accuse of foolishness and cowardice with virtual impunity. An open affront to my sister or me will be an open affront to our son; and Bili, already quite wroth at you and your arrogances, just might decide to treat you as King Gilbuht, long his mentor, would treat an impertinent noble.”

“Now, by Sacred Sun, madam,” grated the Komees, from betwixt bared, yellow teeth, “I’ll not see my homeland ruled in the bloody manner of an unlettered northern barbarian!”

“It is you who are the fool,” hissed Mother Mahrnee, “not our late husband! You make a loud noise of despising the Ehleenee and their ways, yet you talk just like one, as well you should, since you are at least half-Ehleen by blood. You, of all men in this duchy, after your years of soldiering in the Middle Kingdoms, should be aware that they and their peoples are in no way barbarian. Our civilization is much different from that to which you were born, but it is in no wise inferior and, in many ways, superior to yours!”

Hate lanced from his eye as he cackled, “Ha! Hit a nerve, did I? Your kind have always been thin-skinned, proud as peacocks of the stinking middens which spawned you. Yes, I peddled my sword from Hwehlzburk to Hahrbuhnburk, and right often did I find it hard not to laugh at the unlearned apes you call noblemen—who marveled at a noble officer’s abilities to read and write—even while I tried not to gag at the stenches of their long-unwashed bodies! When did one of your kind ever do anything to support your claim of civilized status, eh? They can but fight and kill, breed and wallow in their own filth and ignorance. You’re, none of you, any better than the mountain barbarians; you’re even of the same race!”

“Yes,” nodded Mother Mahrnee. “We are of the same, an­cient race as the mountain folk, and you Ehleenee would do well to remember that fact. Our race is descended in direct line from the demigods, the Mehruhkuhnz, untainted by the blood of effete Ehleenee.

“When first the Ehleenee came to this land, driving our race north and west, they were strong and valiant and honor­able foemen, but in the centuries since, while we progressed, they have either remained static or have actually regressed. It required the Coming of the Horseclans and the unstinting ef­forts of the Undying High Lord to infuse new purpose along with new blood and inaugurate the snail-slow process of snapping your Ehleenee ancestors out of their course of certain racial suicide.

“As for what you have said of our people, some of it is true. No, we do not take to books and quills and soaps and scented water, but you who do so would not long be content­ed or safe as you now are without certain of the creations and products of our own civilization, Count Djeen.

“Your good sword bears the hallmark of the Kingdom of Pitzburk, as does each piece of your armor and, indeed, most of the decent weapons and armor in this duchy! That fine velvet you wore last night at dinner was woven in the capital of our own homeland, the Duchy of Zunburk, while your boots look to be from the County of Pahtzburk. And who but Middle Kingdoms Freefighters fought the Ehleenee’s wars, ere God Milo crossbred Ehleenee with Horseclansmen and forced them to become other than effeminate fops?”

“And, speaking of God Milo, Count Djeen,” interjected Mother Behrnees, “he knows the folk of the Middle Kingdoms far better than do you, yet he has never slandered us. Why, then, do you take such joy in it, not just here and now, but right often in the past?”

“You may be certain,” the old man smiled thinly, “that my dear lord feels precisely as I do, but he must be diplomatic in any congress with your barbarians, since your dungheaps ad­join his northern and northwestern borders, just as he must call common mercenaries ‘Freefighters.’ But I need not be so careful of treading on barbarian toes, for I am but—”

“You are but a fool!” The mindspeak was of terrible inten­sity and was broadbeamed into the minds of every mindspeaker in the hall. “You were a hidebound, opinionated, self-righteous young fool, forty years ago, Djeen Morguhn, and I can see that age has not brought you wisdom!”

Then the alarm trumpet pealed from the watchtower and Feelahks Sami bellowed, “They have forded the stream and they now approach the hall. Open the gates! Now comes the Undying High Lady Aldora Linszee Treeah-Pohtohmahs Pahpahs!”