Bili leads his forces in desperate battle against an arm of bloodthirsty invaders…
The gathering of the host.
With the help of powerful inhuman allies, Prince Byruhn has persuaded Bili and his warriors to delay their return to Confederation lands and join in his campaign against the deadly invading army that threatens to destroy New Kuhmbuhluhn.
But even as Bili and his warriors rally to the Kuhmbuhluhners’ aid, the forces of the Witchmen are on the move again. Are Bili and Prince Byruhn galloping straight into a steel-bladed trap from which death is the only release?
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).
The Best of the Freefighters - A Natural Clan Leader
The story is set in precataclysmic North America, approximately 600 years after nuclear war, man-induced plagues, and worldwide seismic disturbances have thrown humanity into a brutal pre-industrial age. Much of California and the East Coast have sunk into the sea. What remains of the eastern states, from Canada to Georgia, has been settled by waves of dark-skinned and dark-haired adventurers from Europe (Spaniards, Greeks, Armenians, etc.) called the Ehleenee. While these early settlers were rugged fighters in the mold of Athenians and Spartans, the current crop are little more than decadent dictators ruling over downtrodden peasant farmers. The first book in the series (see The Coming of the Horseclans) details the odyssey of the War Chief of the horseclans, Milo of Morai, a mutant immortal from the 20th century, as he leads the nomadic horseclans from the high plains of North America to the Atlantic Ocean. After 200 years of searching for other immortals, Milo has returned to the clans to fulfill an ancient prophecy and lead them to their destined homeland by the sea. Since, unbeknownst to the horseclans, earthquakes long ago sent their original home, Ehlai (Los Angeles), to the bottom of the ocean, Milo convinces them to travel east rather than west. In their way stands the armed might of the Ehleenee and the treacherous Witchmen -- pre-Holocaust scientists who have survived the centuries by repeatedly stealing new bodies to house their minds and who have their own designs for ruling existing civilization.Amazon Review
A small part of a larger story
The Horseclan series could be more accurately described as an epic narative of the history of the ficticous world Robert Adams has created. There are often times several completely unrelated events going on during any given book and these plots might not get resolved until a few books later in the series. This book really had three different short stories going on at the same time. The main story was a flashback to the younger days of Bili the Axe. The backdrop for this story was actually begun in "Horseclan Odyssey" (HC #8) and it was in my opinion the most intriguing. Adams did however put into motion some subplots in this part of the book that are played out in later novels. The second plot concerns the 20th Century survivors known as the Witchmen and is a continuation of the events of "Savage Mountains" (HC #5) and does not reach any sort of ending, but I'm sure will be addressed somewhere later in the series. It's an interesting story line, but it's hard to keep straight when it's only addressed intermittenly throughout the series. Lastly, there was a plot with the savage Ganiks that just kinda stopped...not really sure if this has any future potential. This was also an interesting plot, although, I was at a loss to see how it fit into the big picture. The Ganiks are a barbarian people and RA does a good job of illustrating that fact. Despite the lack of closure on the plots, the book was well written and as always in this series, the charachters are interesting. The key piece of data for anyone thinking of picking up the Horseclan books is that it's not the type of series you just pick up a book here or there, but you've got to read 'em all to get the full enjoyment and impact out of Mr. Adams workjmbyrne25 -- Amazon Review
Those who spoke did not think the dying old man could hear them, but he could. Despite the drugs and other arts which the Zahrtohgahn physicians had administered to him to eliminate the pain of his infected wounds, Prince Bili Morguhn of Karaleenos could still hear his overlord and the others who now were discussing his long, long life and his imminent demise.
“If only he had been as are we,” said Bili’s half-brother, the Undying Lord Tim Sanderz. “As it was, I had hoped for long, as he got older and older and stayed fit and far more hale than many far younger men...” He sighed sadly.
“No more than I had hoped, Tim,” said the Undying High Lord Milo of Morai, concern for his realm mingling with the sorrow in his eyes and tone. “Bili of Morguhn is a remarkable man in a multitude of ways, and he’s going to be devilish hard to replace. I’m sure that you and Giliahna will give it your best shot, but even with your great natural gifts and abilities, you are going to find it damned hard to fill the shoes of Bili the Axe.”
Now it was the High Lord who sighed and sadly shook his head. “And it’s my fault, really. Long years ago I knew that I should start grooming a likely man—if such exists—to take over the Principality of Karaleenos when Bili died or became too ill or senile to longer handle it properly, but he just lived on and on and on, never becoming even marginally inefficient, the reins of all the affairs of the principality always tightly in hand. So it was so much easier for me to just leave it all to him, who did it so well, and apply my own efforts to other affairs in other places, rationalizing falsely, deluding myself with the thought that it was better not to give offense to this most valuable and valued vassal”
He sighed again. “And now it’s too late to take more than stopgap measures. At least, you’ll have old Lehzlee for a few more years, he has been Bili’s right hand for the last twenty or so years. I’ll send your great-grandnephew, Djaik Sanderz of Morguhn, down here from Theesispolis for a farspeaker. It’s possible that you’ll have widespread support from Bili’s people, since you’re related to him, but don’t go wasting a lot of time trying to woo or win over any who seem hostile or uncooperative—replace them immediately they demonstrate an unwillingness to change their ways to suit the new regime. Your strength lies in the west, among your relatives, so recruit there, in the western duchies and the Ahrmehnee stahn—Morguhn, Sanderz-Vawn, Baikuh, Skaht, and Kamruhn—and you might farspeak Prince Roodee of Kuhmbuhluhn; perhaps he has some likely men he can send you. You two are related, aren’t you?”
“Rather distantly,” replied Tim. “His grandmother... no, great-grandmother, I think... was my father’s get by his second wife, Mehleena, the fat, treacherous sow. Princess Deeahna was the youngest of that brood, too young to have absorbed very much of her mother’s madness, religious fanaticism and treason; Giliahna had promised the then prince, her stepson, a bride of her own blood, and when this Deeahna was old enough, she was sent to Kuhmbuhluhn.
“The Princess and young Speeros Sanderz-Vawn were the only two of that pack who didn’t die in disgrace. As you know, Bili had Mehleena’s eldest, that buggering swine Myron, impaled right after that rebellion... after suitable public torture and maiming, of course. And although I was roundly criticized and castigated for the deed, I saw the young bitch who slew my sergeant so treacherously atop a stake, too. The eldest daughter, Dohlohrehz, married an Ahrmehnee who beat her to death when he caught her in bed with another man.”
“And what of this brother, Speeros? Did he find a prince charming to marry, too?” queried Milo a bit caustically.
Tim shook his head. “For some reason, Speeros shared none of the insanity and perversions of his mother and elder brother. Except for his height and big-boned build, he didn’t even look Ehleen. He and his sisters were taken as wards by various Clan Sanderz kith and reared by them and Chief Tahm, although, you may recall, Gil had little Deeahna brought up to Theesispolis a couple of years before she sent her to wed Prince Gy of Kuhmbuhluhn. It was Chief Tahm found a husband for Dohlohrehz amongst his Ahrmehnee kin. But even before either of the girls were placed, Speeros had ridden up to Goohm and enlisted in a squadron of dragoons—enlisted, mind you, the third-eldest surviving son of a Kindred thoheeks.”
Milo’s dark brows rose. “Oh, yes, I’m beginning to recall. I gave that man a Golden Cat, Third Class, and a commission, didn’t I? But ... but I seem to recall that he died a thoheeks himself, Tim.”
“Just so.” The blond man nodded briskly. “By the time you sent me to take over the cavalry arm of the army, that boy had clawed his way to a senior sergeantcy in the lamtha troop of the Kóhkeenos F’tehró Squadron. They and two battalions of the Seventeenth Regiment of Heavy Infantry held the whole damned West Ahfut Tribe off for almost two weeks after the disaster at Bleak Meadow.”
Milo’s lips tightened at the grim old memories. “Better than six regiments of my Regulars, wiped out to the last man! That idiotic swine of a Strahteegos Tohnyos of Kahvahpolis never knew how lucky he was to die with those men he so stupidly misled; if he’d come back alive, I’d have had the bastard impaled before the entire army ... on a thick, blunt stake, at that!
“But that stand that was made at Maizuhn Gap was magnificent. There’s no other word fit to describe it, Tim. Three battered, understrength units, plus a handful of packers and engineers and various other service-troop types, holding-off in the neighborhood of ten thousand blood-mad mountain tribesmen for the time it took the westernmost settlements to prepare for trouble and relief columns to get within striking range.
“But if the stand was magnificent, how does one describe that fighting withdrawal from the Gap? It was this Speeros commanded the withdrawal, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. By that time, he was the highest-ranking man left in any of the units who was capable of command; the only two officers not then dead were too seriously wounded to matter. He had them retreat slowly and in excellent order, and he saw the mountaineers bleed well for every rod and mile of the way, too. He made it back to Thorohspolis with about a thousand foot and almost half the original strength of the squadron.
“I had ridden up with a strong advance party of the relief column, Milo, so I was there when those bloody, filthy, unshaven, ragamuffin heros marched into the city—and I’m here to tell you that they marched in, with their drums marking the pace and their tattered banners unfurled, and a stirring sight that was. I don’t think there was a man or horse that wasn’t wounded in some way or other, Milo, yet even some of them who were hobbling along on makeshift crutches did their pitiful damnedest to strut.
“Speeros formally turned over his assumed command to me, then dropped his well-nicked saber and tumbled from off his horse. My surgeon found no less than nine wounds on that man’s body, Milo, two of them so serious and so long untended that it was for long doubtful he would even live.”
“As I remember, now,” said Milo, “he looked none too hale when I put the chain of that Cat over his head. He retired soon after that, didn’t he?”
Tim shook his head. “Yes, he retired, but not on account of those wounds. He served on at least two more campaigns in his new rank of squadron commander, but then Tahm of Lion Mountain died without issue and Clan Sanderz of Vawn chose Speeros to replace him as chief.”
“What sort of officer did he turn out to be, did you hear?” asked Milo. “As I recall, after all these years, it’s damned seldom I’ve heard a man’s Cat cheered as enthusiastically as was his that day at Goohm.”
“Most spoke very highly of Colonel Speeros. Those few who did not were Academy officers who dislike and distrust a mustang and always show it,” Tim replied, adding, “His last campaign before he retired and returned to become Chief of Sanderz-Vawn was directly under my command, and I can recall no slightest reason to complain of his or his squadron’s performance; that was the year we finally crushed the Western Ahfut Tribe, when we took back those standards they’d taken at Bleak Meadow.”
“Well,” grumbled Milo, “if lose a good senior officer I must, I’d far liefer he become a noble administrator for the Confederation than a useless corpse. I assume he was a good thoheeks?”
“Those few who could recall our late father—his and mine—likened Speeros to him. They said that he was hard but unstintingly fair in his treatment of all. Before he died, even poor old Bili over there had forgiven Chief Speeros his treasonous maternal antecedents and begun to not only address him as cousin, but even have him up here on occasion for hunts and the like.’*
“He wed and bred, then, did he?” inquired Milo. “You said earlier that,one of his descendants is now chief.”
Tim nodded again. “Yes, one of his wives was a noblewoman of Getzburk, who had been a member of the entourage of his sister, the Princess Deeahna of Kuhmbuhluhn; another—he had three wives, two of whom survived him—was a girl of the Vrainyuhn Tribe, an Ahrmehnee relative of his predecessor, Chief Tahm; the third was a Kindred chit, daughter of a far-southwestern thoheeks, Chief Breht Kahrtuh of Kahrtuh—you know, Milo, the clan that breeds our war elephants.”
“One of the clans,” answered Milo. “Clan Djohnz was the first clan in that pursuit; Kahrtuh and Steevuhnz came down there two or three generations later. I know—I was with them.”
They talked on, and old Bili would have enjoyed joining in their discussions and reminiscences, but death was very near now, and he could no longer speak aloud easily. He might have used his powerful mindspeak abilities, had not the drugs fuzzed his mind in that direction. So, as the two low voices droned on, he let his mind sink into memories of far happier days of the distant past.
Little Djef Morguhn’s dark-blue eyes first saw the wan light of Sacred Sun three weeks after the midwinter Sun Birth Festival. The infant was big, too big and big-boned for his mother’s narrow pelvis to accommodate, so he was perforce delivered by means of Pah-Elmuh’s Kleesahk surgery, when two days of unproductive agony had shown that a natural birthing must result in at least one and possibly two deaths.
One of the narrow-hipped Moon Maidens had already died in her effort to give birth, and Lieutenant Kahndoot had remarked to Bili that this was one of the principal reasons the Maidens of the Moon Goddess had never increased their numbers any more than they had over the centuries—very difficult birthings resulting in the deaths of mothers, infants or both being not at all uncommon to their heritage.
Bili wished that Rahksahnah had been so frank with him, much earlier, when Pah-Elmuh might have easily aborted the babe with no danger to the mother, and he had bluntly said as much.
The Moon Maiden officer, Kahndoot, had just shaken her head and smiled. “No, Dook Bili, our Rahksahnah would have considered that an act of cowardice. Besides, she has come to love you deeply and she longs to be the woman who bears the son who will one day succeed you. Being who she is and what she is, she fears not death, if her death be the price of her victory.”
Not that these frank words mollified or in any way brought Bili comfort during the two long days and nights of his woman’s torture, while he paced and swore and tried to stop his ears to the moans and groans and strangled-off screams. Finally, after he had entered the prince-chamber by very brute force and seen for himself just how weak Rahksahnah was now become with strain and blood loss and unceasing pain, he had frantically mindcalled Pah-Elmuh.
The midwives, who had so stubbornly resisted his, Bili’s, entrance to the room, willingly and gladly surrendered this difficult birthing over to the renowned Kleesahk healer; for, were the truth known, they were frankly despairing. They all watched the huge humanoid’s procedures with fascination. So, too, did Bili... and Rahksahnah.
Bili was familiar with pain-easing drugs and with the esoteric hypnotism practiced in lieu of drug anesthesia by the black physicians of Zahrtohgah, but use of either of these methods left the patient bereft of consciousness or so near to it that it did not matter greatly. Yet, although still very weak, almost swooning with the long, protracted agonies and substantial losses of blood, Rahksahnah was clearly conscious, her tooth-torn lips trying to form a smile as she looked up at him and the hulking Kleesahks who were readying the instruments Pah-Elmuh would soon use.
Sensing the concern of the young thoheeks, the senior Kleesahk chose to use his powerful mindspeak, beaming into Bili’s mind a reassurance. “Lord Champion, my way is far better than those of which you think. Yes, I too know of many plants, infusions of various portions of which often serve to ease pain, but most of those plants also are poisonous in large doses, and enough of any of them to ease the pain of birthing would necessarily be very close to a fatal dosage, for the pain of birthing—even of an easy, normal birthing, which this is assuredly not—has few peers in agony of man or Kleesahk or beast.
“However, after the Wise Old Eyeless One taught my father the ways in which he could use his mind to help other beings to heal themselves, my father discovered that both the human and the Teenéhdjook brains, if properly stimulated, can cause the release into the body of certain natural substances which are better at blocking out awareness of pain than even the strongest plant infusions I would dare to use.
“My father passed this arcane knowledge on to me before he died, and you have seen me use it to relieve the sufferings of wounded folk and beasts since the very first day we two met. This is the same art I have just practiced upon your battle companion Rahksahnah. Like the poor female who died before I could be summoned, Rahksahnah’s body is ill suited for easy childbirthing. Her hips are as narrow as a male’s, and the opening in her pelvis is too small.”
Bili gritted his teeth and beamed his grim question on a restricted, personal level, lest Rahksahnah—also a mind-speaker—overhear. “Then what will you do, Master Elmuh? Slay the babe and remove the body in manageable pieces? If such must be, it must be, for her life is dear to me and this world abounds with broad-hipped human brood stock on whom I can get babes aplenty.”
Pah-Elmuh smiled, showing a mouthful of yellow teeth as large as those of a warhorse, though shaped and arranged much like those of a human. He beamed. “Be not so pessimistic, Lord Champion. I have the knowledge and the skill to save both. I shall open the womb and remove the babe, then close up the body again; I have done such before.”
Bili frowned. “But it is very dangerous, is it not? I have heard of such a thing being done, though only rarely, in the lands to the east, whence 1 came. Often the babe lives, true, but the woman usually dies, soon or late.”
Pah-Elmuh smiled again, admonishing, “Lord Champion, all living things must die, soon or late. But both Rahksahnah and this babe will live. Those of whom you speak, those men of the east, have not a way to bid the patient’s body to mend itself of the effects of their surgery, while I do. That it is that removes the deadly danger, here. Watch—you will see.”
And Bili watched, and Rahksahnah watched and the cluster of wise women and midwives all watched the seemingly impossible nimbleness of the Kleesahk’s thick, black-nailed, eight-inch fingers. Long, sure strokes of his bronze knives opened one layer after another of skin and flesh and hard, dense muscles to finally expose the near-bursting uterus. But the most amazing thing to all of the human watchers was the almost total lack of blood flow from the incisions.
Bili beamed a question at Pah-Elmuh but was answered just as silently by the surgeon’s Kleesahk assistant. “Your pardon, Lord Champion, but Pah-Elmuh’s mind is as busy as are his hands, just now. Indeed, his mind it is that is preventing the female’s body from bleeding, for he feels that she already has lost more blood than is good for her.”
When once the uterus was opened, the babe lay exposed, though enclosed in a sack of tissue. Pah-Elmuh carefully lifted it out, sack and all, severed the umbilicus, then waited while his assistant tied off the cord near to the babe with a short length of strong thread.
When the Kleesahk had stripped off the tissue sac, the midwives and wise women all exclaimed at the size and fair shape of the boy babe and waited for the huge humanoid to impart the slap that would shock the infant into breathing in his first breath of air.
But Pah-Elmuh did no such thing; rather he simply regarded the tiny morsel of human flesh resting upon his broad, hairy hand, while his mind instructed the mind of the babe. Drawing in a deep, deep breath, little Djef Morguhn roared out his rage and indignation. Then the Kleesahk gave this newest member of the squadron of Bili, Chief of Morguhn, to the waiting women, while his huge hands went about the task of closing the deep incision in Rahksahnah’s body, that incision still having bled no more than a few drops.
On Djef Morguhn’s eighth day of life, Prince Byruhn rode in from the north, with two of his noblemen and a dozen dragoons. All without exception were bundled to the very ears in furs and woolens against the frigid weather, both the men and their mounts showing the effects of their long, hard journey through the deep snows from King’s Rest Mountain. Nor, Bili, was quick to note, was that all, for both the prince and the tall, slender nobleman showed new scars, while the short, broad and powerful-looking nobleman walked with a decided limp to which he was clearly not yet accustomed.
While the dragoons proceeded on to the ancient tower keep and Count Steev’s servants bore in the baggage of the noble guests and the prince, those three huddled dangerously close to the blazing hearth, sipping at large containers of hot bran-died cider, while clouds of steam rose up from their sodden woolens and ice-crusted furs.
Having been early alerted telepathically by Lieutenant Kahndoot, whose Moon Maidens manned the outer works and the ponderous gate, Bili had immediately set the servants assigned to him and Rahksahnah to moving mother, babe and all effects to another room, thus freeing the prince suite for Byruhn. He himself had first alerted Count Sandee, then descended to the first floor to greet his employer and temporary overlord.
Draining off the rest of his brandied cider, Prince Byruhn whuffed twice, then began to unwind from about his thick neck a lengthy, silk-lined woolen muffler, remarking with a twinkle in his blue-green eyes, “Come you not too near us three ere we’ve bathed and changed clothing, Cousin Bili, for I trow I’ve as many fleas as my horse has hairs. But wait, come you with us to the bathhouse. I’d know more of your fine campaign, and I’m certain you’d know of mine own.”
“They are a singular people, most singular.” The prince addressed Bili from the huge, sunken, tile-lined tub now full of steaming, herb-scented water. “They are not Ohyohers originally. Their legends say that they came from somewhere beyond the Great Inland Sea, to the north of Ohyoh, and for the last two or three score years they have been slowly moving south through the Ohyoh country, conquering and looting or at least disrupting every demesne through which they passed, but never trying to settle or occupy their conquests for any long period of time.
“Then, some few years back, a very strong leader arose amongst the native Ohyohers. He organized almost all of the small statelets under his banner and has since been pushing these Skohshuns—as the enemy call themselves—hard, endeavoring to hurry them across the river and out of Ohyoh entirely. He is succeeding, to my detriment, alas.”
Bili wrinkled his brow in thought, then interjected, “My lord Byruhn, on my first campaign, in Harzburk, King Gilbuht’s army faced a unit of Freefighters who called themselves by the name of Skohshuns or something very like to it. They were all infantry, as I recall, armed with poleaxes and spears, and lightly armored.”
The prince nodded, flinging droplets of water from beard and mustache. “Then these afflicting our kingdom are likely of the same ilk, young cousin. Precious few of them go or fight as proper horsemen. The bulk of the ones to the north are armed with overlong pikes, poleaxes, long, spiked maces and a few warhammers; only the sparse cavalrymen carry true swords; the only edge weapon of most is an oversize dirk, three fingers in width and some foot and a half in length, but without a guard of any description.
“The horsemen go in panoplies of decent-quality armor—a mixture of mail and plate, mostly—and their steeds are protected with plate, mail, horn and leather. But the only protection afforded the foot is a brimmed cap of steel, a skimpy breastplate, a pair of leather-and-mail gauntlets and, sometimes, a pair of elbow cops.”
The short, broad nobleman, he of the recent leg wound, snorted from his own watery place. “Scant need those bastards have of more armor, Cousin Byruhn, since it’s damned seldom any blade or point can get near enough to them to matter. I trow, I can still see those hedges of steel points in my mind’s eye, waking or sleeping.”
The taller, more slender man, he of the new facial scar, sighed. “Aye, it was a near thing, that sad day. Had our good Kleesahks not clouded the minds of the Skohshuns when they did, all three of us and full many another were dead meat.”
“As you may surmise, Cousin Bili,” said Prince Byruhn grimly, “Ehlyuht and Pehrsee here are referring to the first, last and, to date, only full-scale battle against the invaders. Because the Skohshuns withdrew to the north after the battle, our New Kuhmbuhluhn folk have been hailing it as a victory, but I and all else who lived through that shambles know better. Full half of the Kuhmbuhluhn forces committed to that field were either killed or wounded.”
Bili felt a sinking feeling deep in his gut, knowing without knowing that none of his squadron would be seeing home this year. “Then... my lord prince means that half the warriors of the Kingdom of New Kuhmbuhluhn are dead or incapacitated?”
“No, Steel be thanked.” Byruhn shook his massive head. “Unseasonal heavy rains had delayed most of the eastern contingents and I was compelled to march and fight without them. With what I have left—with the eastern force of Count Wenlahk, my survivors, such force as Count Sandee can raise—and with, I hope, your fine squadron, dear cousin... ?”
Bili arose from his seat and spoke firmly. “My lord prince, we two gentlemen have an agreement between us. I and my folk have fulfilled our end of that agreement to its fullest extent; all of the Ganiks have been slain or driven out of your lands. Now is the time for fulfillment of my lord’s part of the agreement; I and mine, most of us, are not mere vagrant mercenaries—we have homes and lands from which we have been long away and to which we desire to return.”
The young thoheeks thought it politic not to add that with the eastern areas cleared of the last of the outlaw Ganiks, he and his so-called squadron might have ridden east into the Ahrmehnee mountains at any time, with or without Prince Byruhn’s leave. Indeed, it had been his thought to order that very thing when winter had suddenly and early clamped down its hard and merciless grip on Sandee’s Cot and all lands about. He should have marched east months ago, winter or no winter, he belatedly realized, while this devious royal personage was still licking his wounds in the north.
“Sit down!” the prince ordered without thinking, then added in a softer, friendlier, and familiar tone, “Please resume your place, young cousin, and hear me out. Lest your mind be filled with thoughts of the inconstancy and ingratitude of princes, bear you this in mind: In normal times, my word has never been questioned, nor had need to be. But these be far from normal times; we of New Kuhmbuhluhn have been driven to very bay; already we show blood and the hounds are snapping all around us.
“Now, you are a man much like to me, Bili of Morguhn. I knew that for fact early on. Were your domain as severely threatened as is mine own, I know that you would seek, would demand, aid wherever and from whomever you could find it. I am come south to do just that. But in view of the splendid service you and yours already have rendered me and New Kuhmbuhluhn, I shall not demand, as I might; rather I shall address our assembled squadron at sometime after the nooning tomorrow, allow them to sleep upon it and give me their firm answer on the morning following. Perhaps not all will wish to stay another year and fight another campaign, but I am to the wall. I will take whatever force I can fairly get. The remainder may ride east with my blessing and sincere thanks for last summer’s service.
“There is a chest of gold among my baggage to pay those who decide to return east. You and I will have to decide upon a fair rate of pay for them, cousin.”
Some lingering presentiment nudged still at Bili, telling him that this conversation was a waste of breath, that this prince had no slightest intention of allowing even one of the eastern warriors out of his grasp until his ends were fully achieved. Nonetheless, he said, “My lord prince, while a bit of hard specie will assuredly please the Confederation nobility—both Kindred and Ehleen—I think that the Maidens and the Ahrmehnee would consider their service paid for by the old plate I took from the royal armory here and had adapted to them, that and the horses they now ride, which came from the Sandee’s Cot herd or from the Ganiks.”
“And those are just the things I cannot afford to let them take out of the kingdom,” said Byruhn bluntly. “Am I to properly outfit replacements for those men lost in the fight against the Skohshuns, the armories of the several safe-glens must perforce be stripped to the bare walls.
“The loss of horses, too, was very heavy in that battle. Mountain ponies run half wild in profusion, as you know, but in my present straits I cannot allow any full horse that was not ridden into New Kuhmbuhluhn by your folk to depart the kingdom. Indeed, I hereby offer far better weight of gold for troop horses or, especially, full-trained destriers than they could bring in any other domain.”
The prince looked down briefly at his big, chapped hands clasped together on the edge of the bathing pool, then he glanced back up at Bili from beneath his thick red-gray brows. “You must know, of course, young cousin, that I intend to hire away from you—for gold or lands and, mayhap, a title—every sword arm that may succumb to my blandishments? Aye, you have served me fully and well and our original agreement is fulfilled and done and right many would aver that that which I am come here to do is dishonorable and duplicitous—double dealing and ingratitude of a stripe to stink to the very tip-tops of the highest mountains. But know you that I can do no other, at this fell juncture in the affairs of the Kingdom of New Kuhmbuhluhn, so sorely pressed are my house and our folk by these invaders from the north, these Skohshuns.”
The nobles and officers heard it first from Prince Byruhn at dinner on the day of his arrival. He was completely candid, taking the bulk of the blame for the military disaster squarely on his own hulking shoulders.
“Due to the predominance of unmounted men, I rashly assumed that when once we had driven the smattering of heavy horse from the field, the sketchily armored foot might be routed and dispatched at our leisure.
“Please understand, however, those Skohshuns with whom our arms have been sparring for the past few years have been almost all either heavy horse or pony-mounted foot used as dragoons. But large numbers of Skohshuns have crossed over the river from Ohyoh since their vanguard managed to hack out a base of sorts around and in what once was one of our safe-glens. Although these massed ranks of lightly armored foot were a new form of opponent to us, they apparently are a well-established mode of warfare for the Skohshuns, for a long period of drill and training was certainly required to make scarcely supported infantry stand so firm in the face of an assault of heavy-armed horse... drill and training and a long experience of victories over mounted men.
“The heavy horse of the Skohshuns would not stand and fight on that fell day; rather did they disperse before ever we reached them and take up positions on both flanks of the formation of pikemen. I should have suspected something at that juncture, for never before have Skohshun horsemen seemed craven when faced with battle, but I did not, alas, which presaged the death or grievous injury of full many a brave man, that day.”
The prince sighed, then took a draft from his goblet and went on. “It may possibly be that things might have been different had I awaited the arrival of my own infantry... but I rather doubt it. If the New Kuhmbuhluhn gentry could not hack through that damnable pike hedge, I find it hard to believe that any number of lighter-armed foot could do so.
“But we tried, that we did! We charged them again and again. Even after most of the horses were dead or too badly hurt to bear our weight, we threw ourselves at those goddam dripping pikepoints and the bastards behind them... to no avail.
“Whilst we still were hacking at them ahorse, footmen armed with huge poleaxes came out from their flanks to harass our own flanks and rear. Once most of us were afoot, that damned Skohshun cavalry made to ride us all down. Would’ve, too, save for the timely arrival of our own foot and the heavy horse who had served as a rearguard on the march.
“Then, to add insult to injury”—the lips of the prince became a tight line and frustrated rage glittered in the depths of his blue-green eyes—“the dirty swine just sat or stood there while we withdrew, not even offering to attack or pursue!”
After another deep draft from the goblet, an even deeper breath, he added, “And, for all I know, that cursed line of pikemen—five men deep—stood on that field until the damned sun set, not one of the lowborn scum even so much as nicked, and with the best, the finest, the richest blood of New Kuhmbuhluhn clotting on the points of their overlong pikes and peculiar poleaxes.
“Methinks that the only thing that saved the kingdom from being overrun in the wake of my disaster was the abnormally heavy rains of last autumn. Like most men, these Skohshuns give over campaigning in winter; indeed, they haven’t even mounted any raids since the disastrous battle. But my father, the king, and I are only too cognizant of what must surely happen in New Kuhmbuhluhn when once the snows be melted and the time for campaigning arrives in these mountains.
“With a good third of my gentry slain last autumn and another third, at the least, either permanently crippled or still recovering from wounds, our straits would seem severe enough, but there is more and worse, yet. So many destriers did we lose to my folly that I cannot even properly mount such effectives as I have left, not on trained and steady beasts, big and tall enough to bear the weight of full-armed men.
“For this reason, I must not only strip every man of an age to fight from this and the other safe-glens, but every trained horse as well, and this must include all of those horses from the Sandee herd and those taken from the Ganiks that you and your force have been using. I also must have back those arms and equipments that originally came from the armory in the tower keep.
“To those of you who own your horses, I stand ready and eager to pay you your asking price for them—within reason, of course—in gold. Nor will any go east afoot, for each horse will be replaced with a couple of large ponies, which really are better suited to mountain travel than are full horses, anyway.
“To those of you who are professionals, I hereby offer employment at top wages, and, are our arms finally victorious, those of you Freefighters who chance to be noble-born might bear in mind that New Kuhmbuhluhn is just now rife with new widows and other bereaved kin of the gentry slain at the Battle of the Long Pikes. Moreover, with these lands now purged at last of those manbeasts the Ganiks, my father will be in need of loyal men to invest with new fiefs.”
Lieutenant Kahndoot contacted Bili silently, telepathically, “My lord, may I address a question to Prince Byruhn?”
While the prince paused for another draft, Bili said, “Lord prince, one of my officers, Lieutenant Kahndoot of the Moon Maidens, would have of you an answer to a question, if it be your will.”
Setting down the goblet, the royal personage showed strong, yellow teeth and nodded. “Ask away, lieutenant.”
The tall, broad-shouldered, powerful-looking young woman paced to the open space before the high table, to a creaking of leather and a clanking of armor which she alone in this hall was wearing, having but just come from wall duty to this special conference.
Having served nearly a year beside the easterners, she and most of the other Maidens had of necessity become far more adept at speaking Mehrikan of one dialect or another, so her question was only slightly stilted.
“Spoke my lord of lands which might be given to men of proven loyalty, men who had chosen to fight these Skohshuns for my lord and his royal father. What of women who so fought? Might they, too, receive lands, perhaps a large glen?”
Byruhn nodded brusquely. “If these women of whom you now speak be the justly famous and renowned Moon Maidens, lieutenant, why I say that a warrior be a warrior, to my way of reckoning, and I’d be right glad to know that you and your sisters rode under my banner. My gratitude will be equal to all my warriors, and, yes, there is a fine, large, once-rich glen in the north, needing only to be purged of trespasser Skohshuns to be once again ours to give in fief.”
The steel-clad woman nodded and bowed stiffly. “I thank my lord. I now must bear his words to my sisters.”
The prince nodded himself, then addressed his audience, “If any others of you would question, do so now.”
A tall, slender whipcord of a man took two steps forward from the knot of Bill’s officers. His eyes were the yellow-green of some great cat, and his movements no less feline, all easy grace and controlled power. Like Bili and all the other men from the Middle Kingdoms, his scalp was shaven and that scalp was furrowed with old scars. His melodious tenor voice bore the nasal accent of a native Pitzburker.
“Lord prince, Freefighter Captain Fil Tyluh respectfully prays your indulgence.”
Byruhn smiled warmly. “Now there speaks old-fashioned courtesy, personified! There’s no doubting your wellborn and noble antecedents, young sir. Say on, Captain Tyluh. What would you of me?”
“This, lord prince. As a professional, I would as lief swing steel for your gold as for Duke Bili’s, and so, I think, would most others of the Freefighters here; but I and they have a peculiar problem, to whit: Many of us wear and ride borrowed gear and horses. When we all rode west across the Ahrmehnee stahn, Duke Bili... ahhh, persuaded certain of the lowlander nobles of the Confederation to part with their fine-grade panoplies and well-trained destriers that all of his squadron might be better armed and mounted.
“Now, though I know not how the others might feel, I would consider myself less than honorable were I to take leave of Duke Bili’s service and enter into that of another while riding and wearing property not truly mine own.”
“There can be no doubting the depth and breadth of your honor, my good captain,” said Byruhn solemnly. “Indeed, it will be honor to me and to my House to number such a man as you amongst my officers. As for your mount and plate, fear not; I shall see to it that the owners receive full value in gold.”
He turned then back to the rest. “If none else has a question of me, then retire to your tower quarters and relay my recent words to your companions and troopers, for I would know who will and who will not join under my banner by the coming morn. All have my leave to now depart my presence.”
When all save Bili, Count Steev Sandee and the huge Kleesahk, Pah-Elmuh, had filed out into the frigid night, the prince said, “Cousin Bili, I have kept you from your wife and new son long enough this night, so you may retire also; the next matters I have to discuss are with Steev and Elmuh. On the morrow, we’ll breakfast together, eh?”
With Bili departed abovestairs, Prince Byruhn quickly closeted himself with the grizzled old count and the hirsute hominid within a small, thick-walled study, the door of which was not only closed and heavily barred, but now guarded with bared and shining blades by the two northern noblemen.
His blue-green eyes gazing fixedly at his goblet, the silver stem of which he was rolling back and forth between his thick, callused fingers, the prince said resignedly, “I had hoped, when I rode down here, that this would not again be necessary, that affairs could be handled openly, honestly, completely aboveboard, this time... but it seems that such is not to be, after all.
“I know that you don’t like it, Steev, that you didn’t like the way I ... ahhh, recruited Duke Bili’s squadron last year, that you will like even less a repetition of that delusive manner of persuasion after having campaigned with these lowlanders for so long, but, man, I have no choice.
“Every ounce of gold that his majesty and I could scrape up is in my chest. There is barely enough to pay retaining fees for the Freefìghters and purchase prices for such trained destriers as I had expected to be able to buy. But if, as the captain averred, the horses and the armor of most of the Freefìghters I had expected to hire on is going to have to be paid for before they can sign on with me, the situation is flatly impossible; New Kuhmbuhluhn is rich enough in land, but hard specie—gold or even silver—is something else again.
“And Steev, Elmuh, we must have the help of Duke Bili’s squadron! Even with them, there is a good chance that our arms will go down to eventual defeat. Without them, it’s a sure certainty.”
The huge, hairy Kleesahk spoke then. Gravely he spoke, but slowly, for his nonhuman vocal apparatus was ill suited to reproduce the speech sounds of mankind. “It is foreordained that victory shall be ours under the leadership of the Lord Champion, this Bili of Morguhn; such was prophesied long years before any of us was born, my lord prince, and the prophesies of the Old Wise One never have erred. This is why I have done your bidding before and will do it again—putting into the sleeping minds of these lowlanders the desire to fight for New Kuhmbuhluhn—though I like such underhandedness no better than does Count Steev, especially when it be imposed upon men and women who have already done so much for us in cleansing these lands of the detestable Ganiks.
“But if they remain not in New Kuhmbuhluhn, then our Lord Champion will not remain. Yet he is predestined to stay beside us and bring us victory at the last battle, so Fate must already have decided that I and the other Kleesahks do whatall my lord bids us do.”
Having said his say, the hominid departed for the tower, wherein he and the other Kleesahks would mesh their powerful minds and, for a second time, do the bidding of Prince Byruhn.
When he had refilled the prince’s goblet and his own, old Count Steev wrinkled up his scarred forehead and remarked, “You’ll not be getting the full squadron, you know, my lord, no matter what arcane stratagems Pah-Elmuh and his Kleesahks wreak for you this night.”
Byruhn gave over playing with the goblet and devoted his full attention to his elderly vassal, one side of his single red eyebrow arching up. “Riddle me not this night, Steev. The ride down here was exceeding wearisome and my body craves a long, warm sleep. The Kleesahks did well enough when last they cozened the lowlanders into fighting for us, so why should they be less successful this time around?”
The old nobleman shrugged. “Oh, I doubt not that the minds of all those brave men and women will be convinced that they must again risk lives and health for New Kuhmbuhluhn, my lord, but the bodies of not a few will be unable to follow the dictates of their minds.”
“That many are wounded, then?” queried the prince. “I had understood that Cousin Bili sustained relatively few casualties in the course of his campaign.”
The count showed crooked, yellow teeth and shook his gray head. “There are a few cripples, yes, but I speak not of them, my lord. It’s the Moon Maidens. Many of them are gravid—so big in the belly that they cannot even don their armor, much less mount a horse or ride north in the dead of a bad winter.”
The prince relaxed and shrugged, recommencing his toying with the stem of the goblet. “A bad winter, yes, and all of the portents promise that it will be late in departing into spring, which will likely give most of these former Maiden warriors time to foal, I doubt me not. If these Skohshuns adhere to the same tactics they’ve followed before, they’ll not even begin to raid, until the spring rains are done, so there will be a plentitude of time for Cousin Bili and the squadron, with you and your men, to get up to King’s Rest Mountain, where I’ll be marshaling my forces.”
Old Steev shook his head. “A warcamp be no place for babes at suck, lord.”
Byruhn nodded once, forcefully. “Agreed. Nor do I want superfluous mouths to feed in New Kuhmbuhluhnburk, either the city or the citadel, not when the possibility of a siege be looming. Therefore, it were best that some few of the Maidens remain here with the spawn of themselves and their sisters. Even as poorly manned as it will, perforce, have to be, I can see no possibility of Sandee’s Cot falling to these Skohshuns. Besides, the knowledge that their children are down here, in the south, will give the squadron an additional reason to see to it that the invaders are stopped, defeated, driven back, in the north. Eh?”
The old man sighed, turning his hands palms upward in a gesture of surrender. “What you have ordered wrought this night and these future things you plan, here, may well be necessary to your mind, lord prince, but still are they one and all dishonorable and I fear me that no good can come of such devious infamies. But they are your royal will, and I am your sworn man.”