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Champion of the Last Battle

Only one thing stands between the Skohshuns and victory—the deadly challenge of Bili the Axe and his warrior band…

Besieged!

The day of prophecy has come at last—the time for Bili and Prince Byruhn to rally their troops for the final defense of New Kuhmbuhluhn.

But even as the people of the kingdom flock into their great stone city and Bili’s warriors take up their posts on the walls, the Skohshuns are building new weapons of destruction to storm the fortress.

And within the very castle grounds stalks a creature of nightmare, striking down the defenders one by one in a reign of bloody terror that may prove far more deadly than the enemy at their gates...

Book 11 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).

Reviews

5 of 5 stars

Another extremely good entry in the Horseclans saga. The books in this area of the series, 10 through about 13/14, were the absolute best.

Charles -- Amazon Reviews


This is a long series in a post-holocaust world. ...they are enjoyable books and entertaining to read. I am always a sucker for telepathic animals. I always wondered what the heck my dog was thinking when he did that. It also amused me when she stuck her nose in inappropriate places and seemed to enjoy the discomfort it engendered. Since I wasn’t lucky enough to have a telepathic dog, I always enjoy stories with telepathic/intelligent animals.

Amazon Review

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.

Amazon Review
Excerpt

Prologue

When once his assistants had, under his supervision, administered the drugs and departed the chamber, the old, wizened Zahrtohgahn physician stood beside the massive bed for long and long, just observing the old, dying man who lay thereon. Master Ahkmehd was, himself, but a bare score of years the junior of his patient and had been his personal physician for nearly twoscore years, his friend and trusted confidant for almost as long.

Unconsciously, the stooped practitioner wrinkled his nose at the stench of corrupting flesh from his patient’s inflamed arm, that arm which he had not been allowed to amputate properly after a wounded bear had so torn and mauled it that it would never have been of real use again even had infection not set into it.

“Ah, Bili, my dear, old lord,” he sighed at last in his own guttural language. “Yes, you surely were a stark warrior and were well named Bili the Axe by friend and foe alike. But you were so much more, as well; you brought true and abiding peace to a much-troubled land in the near fifty years you ruled it.

“Assuredly, Ahláh granted you a long life and you used it well. So well did you use that life you shortly will depart that I cannot but regret that you die an infidel, for if any man ever deserved the Paradise of the Prophet, it is you, Lord Bili of Morguhn. Ahláh keep you, my good, old friend. Never will there be another like unto you.”

To the dying old man upon the bed, the words made no sense—for all that he spoke Zahrtohgahn fluently—they were but a muted drone to senses dulled by drugs, hypnotism and fast-approaching death. During the week or so since the pain of the suppurating flesh had become of such intensity that Zahrtohgahn wiles and drugs had been necessary, his consciousness had spent precious little time in this present world of his—that of a suffering, slowly dying, aged man.

Rather had he retreated into his own mind, into his memories, to live again the tumultuous, exciting days of his life of nearly fourscore years before—days of war and love, of hard, rough living, of crashing’ battles, of priceless moments of passion shared with the long-dead woman he had never ceased to love and to mourn through all the decades that had followed.

Now, once more, he left the aged, almost-dead husk to again inhabit that young, powerful, towering body of the young Thoheeks Bili, Morguhn of Morguhn, the Bili of some seventy-eight years agone.

...

Chapter One

A bit before sunrise, young Thoheeks Bili of Morguhn was wakened by one of his menservants. When he had made brief use of the chamber pot and downed a small draft of honey wine and water, he was dressed by the first servant and two others, then armed. Once fully attired and in a splendid set of half-armor, with sword slung on baldric, dirk and daggers belted at his thick waist and a crested helm under his left arm, he departed the sprawling suite through doors opened by servants or armed guards and descended the palace stairs to the main hall and the waiting knot of officers and noblemen.

Like him, all belowstairs were half-armored, and, although they had been taking their ease on the various benches and chairs before tables now bare of anything save cups, ewers and small braziers for the heating of mulling irons, they one and all came to their feet upon his entrance.

Waving them back to their places, the tall young warrior paced the length of the hall to take his usual place at the high table, where he was quickly served a tankard of spiced cider to which he added a dollop of apple brandy.

When he had downed half the contents of the tankard, he said, “Good morning... I hope. Before anyone asks, no, my Lady Rahksahnah has not yet dropped her foal, thank you.

“Now, let’s get this business of reports out of our way, then we’ll walk the usual circuit, attend to any necessary things in the city, and by that time perhaps the day’s meal will be ready for the eating. Eh? Who’s first, this day?”

One by one, those who had been duty officers for the preceding day and night rendered routine reports. Little had occurred in that period, it seemed. The Skohshun army still squatted in their camps on the plain below the city, but seemed to be licking their wounds from the latest attempt to storm the almost impregnable city some month or more agone and had demonstrated only their normal, now familiar routines of camp life.

There had been some deaths in the city, of aged, ill or wounded, but this was to be expected. Captain Kahndoot’s war-mare had dropped a fine, sturdy bay colt, and the big, stocky Moon Maiden could only beam her pride. A smile never seemed to leave her plain, broad-cheeked face.

Junior Captain Frehd Brakit reported that for all that the siege was now entering its third month, there was no dearth of food anywhere in city or citadel for man or horse. The compulsive squirreling away of stores by King Mahrtuhn I and all his successors was now paying off. The heavy rain of the day before had not been needed, not with the city’s steady supply of clear, cold water from the spring-fed lake within the bowels of the mountain upon which New Kuhmbuhluhnburk had been built.

Bili grinned wolfishly. “I’d not care to be living in the Skohshun camps, this morning. The way that rain came down, they’re certain to be a slippery, sticky, stinking quagmire from end to end, right now.”

The next officer to step forward was Sir Yoo Folsom. The bandy-legged, blond, late-thirtyish knight had been the first of the northern nobles to greet Bili and his squadron after the abominable march up from Sandee’s Cot, early last spring. Sir Yoo was also one of the few survivors of the late king’s bodyguard, and he now acted as a vice-commander of the lower city.

“For all the actual plentitude of vittles, here in the city and citadel, m’lord duke, I’d liefer be eating and drinking the produce of me own lands, on me own lands. A scurvy pox on t’damned Skohshun bastards!”

Bili smiled warmly. “Would that we both were there for the eating of another of your fine, fat steers, Sir Yoo. But alas, I suppose our enemies are doing that.”

The knight rumbled a laugh. “Ohohoho, not my stock, by Steel! Whatall couldn’t be harvested was burned, most of whatall could be, along with most of the larder and cellar and smokehouse was either wagoned up here or buried safe for after them Skohshuns is gone or dead. The cows and such was all drove up into the south mountains, and all my neighbors did the same, too.

“But I did leave barrels of fine beer fer the Skohshuns. Hid it was, but not hid too well, and flavored with a herb what grows wild in some places.” A sudden attack of laughter bubbled up, but he managed to finally quell it and went on.

“Privy-root, that herb’s called round here, and fer good reason, too. Any damn Skohshun bastard as drank as much as a pint measure of thet nice, cool beer is gonna think afore too long thet a torch dance is going on in his guts, and he won’t do no fighting for at least a week, he’ll be too busy squatting, he will.” Once more the laughter gained control of Sir Yoo, and this time Bili and the rest joined with him.

The field campaign against the northern invaders, the Skohshuns, had been an almost unmitigated disaster for the army of the King of New Kuhmbuhluhn, fatal to the royal personage and for far too many of his faithful supporters as well. And worst of all, to Bili Morguhn’s mind, was that all or most of it was completely unnecessary; there had been no real need to march out and meet the enemy at his full strength and on ground of his choosing. Bili had himself counseled that such be avoided at all costs, that these Skohshuns be forced to first blunt their teeth on, and bleed a bit before, the walls of this very city. But the late king had for some reason felt himself honor-bound to go to his death and lead many a follower with him.

From the very outset, King Mahrtuhn’s organization—or, rather, studied lack of same—of the progress of armed men toward certain battle had offended all the lessons, precepts and training of Bili and had set his teeth edge to edge. For all his relative youth, the young thoheeks had seen and had taken part in such marches done properly, had experienced the sudden, terrifying shock of an ambuscade, and was all too aware that King Mahrtuhn was at the very least courting fatal consequences, proceeding as recklessly as he was. Not one, single flank rider preceded the column or paralleled the route of march. The so-called van was far too close to the head of the main column, and there was no rearguard, save a gaggle of stragglers.

Moreover, the monarch had deliberately left every one of the Kleesahks—those huge, hybrid, part-human creatures whose preternatural senses might have partially at least replaced the missing security forces on the march—to be part of the garrison of New Kuhmbuhluhnburk, remarking that since the enemy Skohshuns lacked Kleesahk allies, he felt that it would be less than honorable to set out with a detachment of them.

In the light of so royal a degree of utter stupidity—which was how Bili saw it, then and ever after—he had sent the prairiecat Whitetip out on the night before the column left the fortified city. The big feline had first performed a reconnaissance of the proposed route-of-march for a bit over a day’s ride from New Kuhmbuhluhnburk, telepathically beamed his discoveries back to Bili, then found a safe, dry, comfortable place to lie up until the march actually began.

Soon after the tail end of the column had quitted the lower approaches to New Kuhmbuhluhnburk, a young New Kuhmbuhluhn knight had ridden back down the files to the head of Bili’s squadron of lowlanders. Following an old-fashioned, intricately formal salute, the youth had stiltedly conveyed his message: The esteemed and courageous Duke Bili of Morguhn was summoned to ride at the side of King Mahrtuhn for the nonce. Leaving hisforce under the capable command of Freefighter Captain Fil Tyluh, Bili had urged his big black stallion in the wake of the returning galloper.

Like Bili, King Mahrtuhn was an axeman, using that weapon by preference in battle, rather than the more usual sword or saber or lance; his was only slightly less massive than Bili’s own double-bitted axe, being single-bitted, but with the usual finial spike and another, cursive one behind the blade. Both axemen carried their fearsome weapons cased between pommel and knee on the off side of their horse housings and so within easy reach in an emergency.

Although nearly fifty years Bili’s senior, the only hints of advanced years about King Mahrtuhn were his white hair and wrinkle-furrowed face. He rode tall and erect in his saddle, his broad-hipped and -shouldered, thick-waisted body all big bones and rolling muscles. At his left side rode a younger, carbon copy of him, his chosen heir, Prince Mahrtuhn Gilbuht of New Kuhmbuhluhn.

Both royal personages smiled cheery greeting to Bili and opened the space betwixt their warhorses that he might ride between and so converse easily with either or both.

But King Mahrtuhn’s warm smile metamorphosed into a frown as he said, “Cousin, we are informed that you have developed and schooled your squadron in a maneuver designed to gap the Skohshun’s pike hedge. We hope that your means are honorable. We cannot and will not countenance the use of bows or darts or slings or such other cowardly, dishonorable methods aimed at the murders of brave fighting men. You have heard our views on that distasteful subject.”

“No, your majesty,” Bili replied, “this tactic makes no slightest use of missile weapons. Of horses either, for that matter, save only to bear us up to the points of the pikes. Then will we all go in afoot, in half-armor.”

The younger prince—younger than the king, but still a good ten years Bili’s senior in age—raised a dark-red eyebrow. “It sounds a bit like suicide, to me, Duke Bili. If mounted men in full armor can’t hack a way through that hedge, what possible chance has a contingent of warriors in half-armor and on foot? Many a trick that looks good on a sand board or the practice field proves worse than useless when push comes to shove with steel points. How can you be certain that his majesty is not just allowing you to fritter away the strength of your squadron?”

Bili nodded. “I appreciate your sincere concern for my command, lord prince, but this will not be the first use of this tactic on a hard-fought field. It was first developed by one of my maternal ancestors, a certain Duke of Zuhnburk, and with it he defeated numerically superior forces on more than one occasion. Others in the Middle Kingdoms have, over the years, emulated him with equal success. I have drilled my folk hard and well, and I expect equal success against these Skohshuns.”

King Mahrtuhn bobbed his head, his plumes nodding. “We were assured by our nephew, Prince Byruhn, that your new mode of fighting was honorable and, if performed bravely, had a good chance of succeeding to its purpose, but we wished to hear the same from your lips, cousin.”

“Uncle Byruhn,” said the younger Mahrtuhn with a grin, “while he is purely honorable, has been known to stretch the truth a bit when certain of his personal stratagems were involved... and to wax most wroth upon being put to questions a second time. And he is angry enough, just now, because his majesty and I decided to leave the bowmen and the slingers upon whom Byruhn dotes back in New Kuhmbuhluhnburk.”

Bili silently reflected that in Prince Byruhn’s place he, too, would be angry. The mountainous man had fairly quivered with rage as he had detailed the monumental folly of his father and nephew to Bili on the evening before.

“My royal sire is not a stupid man, Cousin Bili, nor is my nephew, so I can but assume that they both have taken temporary leave of their senses. I was at that meeting whereat the heralds of the Skohshuns were heard, and if the chief herald had been a wizard, then surely his spells would have affected me, as well, not just the king and young Mahrtuhn. And their strategy, if such ill-conceived plans can be truly called such, smacks unmistakably of either witchcraft or insanity.

“Hark you, because these trespassing foreigners own no bowmen or slingers in their own host, the king has come to feel that it would be an act of dishonor to include such in our own array, for all that it was those same missilemen who enabled me and what was by then left of our last year’s army to win back to the safety of these stout walls after the autumn disaster; had they not nibbled and pecked at the Skohshun pursuit, none of us would be here today to fight again.

“Moreover, his majesty is of the opinion that use of our traditional allies, the Kleesahks, would also be unfair and therefore dishonorable. I’ve never before heard such gross foolishness from my father, Cousin Bili, and I’d suspect encroaching senility, save that my nephew is of exactly the same idiotic bent in this matter.”

“Could it not be, Lord Byruhn,” suggested Bili, “that the prince your nephew’s voiced opinion is but a reflection of that of the king your father? You know as do I that the old often influence the young both for good and for ill.”

The prince gusted a sigh, his big hands absently clenching and releasing only to reclench the chiseled-silver goblet which was still half full of wine. “Yes, I, too, had thought of that, of course, cousin; but such is not the case, here. My nephew and my father have always been like to but one mind in two bodies—one younger, one older—almost from the birth of the young prince. That is one of the reasons that I declined to become heir upon the demise of my elder brother, the present heir’s sire, years agone.

“As you are by now surely aware, my royal sire and I differ in many a way, both in thought and in actions. The royal councilors of that time recognized and feared the possible strife and discontent that might be caused should the kingship pass from my father to me, and with the good of our kingdom in mind, I could not but agree with them.

“It is not mere flattery that he is called King Mahrtuhn the Good, you know; my royal father is a good king, a very good king to his people... up until now, at least, when he seems firm bent on dragging a number of the best men in all the kingdom down to bloody death with him.

“I now deeply regret that I did what I did to bring you and your force up here to quite probably die with us in this... this royal madness, young cousin. You and yours had served us well in the Ganik Campaign. You deserved more of a recompense than I saw you served. But what has been done has truly been done and cannot now be undone. However, you and your squadron just might represent the only chance that some few of us might survive the battle toward which we must ride out on the morrow, you and this new tactic in which you have drilled your squadron. Do you truly think it will work, will break the pike hedge enough for horsemen to hack a way through?”

Bili’s thick shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. “Who can say for sure what way a yet-to-be-fought battle will go, Lord Byruhn? I only know that the squadron performs the drills well, that if done properly the exercise has never failed to break a pike formation, and that I am certain that my squadron will perform well... dead certain, your grace. I have wagered my life upon it. But our own fighting will have been for naught unless heavy horse quickly follows us and consolidates our gains. Can we be certain that the king, your father, will hold his charge for the length of time our work will require for accomplishment?”

Byruhn frowned. “To be frank, no, not if he comes to feel his pride has been pricked. But I hereby assure you that I will hold my battle, the left battle, until the time is ripe to follow up your squadron, no matter what my royal father and my nephew do with their own two battles.”

And despite the occasions on which Prince Byruhn had misled him and misused his squadron to the advantage of New Kuhmbuhluhn, still Bili felt that he could believe the present assurances of the hulking, hairy nobleman. “And I had better be right, in this instance,” thought the young thoheeks, “else damned precious few of us will live to hack a way out of the Skohshun pike hedge.”

After the departure of the prince, Bili mused silently as he went about the chamber snuffing the candles, prior to taking up the last and repairing to the bedchamber.

“Even if he is true to his word, though, it still will be a chancy thing. After their losses last year, all three battles combined number less than twelve hundreds of horsemen, with the left battle—Prince Byruhn’s own—the lightest, three hundred... maybe, three hundred and fifty men. There’s no doubt that we can gap the hedge, me and mine, but no gap lasts long, not in a disciplined hedge of pikes, and from all that I’ve heard of these Skohshuns, their precision and discipline would put the best professional Freefighter infantry to shame.

“Now if the king and all three battles were to charge together, drive a wedge of steel into that gap before the pikes could close up again, King Mahrtuhn might very well win that field. But with only Byruhn’s battle to back us...?” The young man sighed and shook his shaven head. “The very best we can anticipate is stinging the foe sorely, then getting the most of us out alive. And once we—my squadron and I—are out of that hedge, we are through with King Mahrtuhn, Prince Byruhn and their damned misfought little war. If these New Kuhmbuhluhners persist in disregarding good advice and planning suicidal campaigns to no purpose, they cannot expect hired swords to proceed with them to a certain death.”

Fanned by cooling breezes from the north and west, the royal army of New Kuhmbuhluhn moved at a steady pace through most of that first day, covering in excess of thirty miles, despite several longish—and, to Bili’s mind, utterly unnecessary—halts for “conferences” amongst the king, his captains and senior noblemen. That night’s camp was made upon the banks of a swift-flowing stream, just off the corduroy road that paralleled its south bank as far as a ford that lay a couple of miles to the west. There was at least an hour of daylight remaining when the column halted, so Bili was at a loss to explain to himself, much less to his seasoned squadron, why the king failed to press on and make camp where his army might guard that vital stream crossing throughout the night. But the young warrior knew by then the futility of pointing out tactical advantages to the headstrong, stubbornly honor-bound hereditary ruler of the New Kuhmbuhluhners.

But when it became obvious that King Mahrtuhn didn’t intend even to ditch the perimeter of the camp or to post more than a cursory guard throughout the hours of darkness, Bili could no longer restrain himself, and sought out the king in his pavilion.

King Mahrtuhn, whose breath was thick with the heady fumes of the powerful New Kuhmbuhluhn apple brandy, heard his young captain out. But when once Bili had said his piece, the white-haired monarch shook his head and spoke in tones of mild reproof.

“Oh, young, young cousin, you are so suspicious-natured, so very untrusting, and you slander our valiant foemen, the Skohshuns. Those who command the Skohshun pikemen are noble gentlemen all, and of ancient lineage; such men would not stoop to the attack of respected foemen whilst they slept. No, they desire an open, stand-up, breast-to-breast fight every bit as much as do we.

“ You have spent the sum of your young life at war with men lacking any save the barest trace of honor, this much is abundantly clear from your actions and attitudes, but our brave Skohshuns are not of that ill-found stripe, we assure you. Our own son, Prince Byruhn, and others of our vassals have warred with these Skohshuns, and we ourselves have entertained their heralds, so we know whereof we speak on these matters.”

The craggy features of the monarch had been firm while he spoke, but now he smiled warmly. “But now, sit you down with us, young cousin, sit you down, we say. Fill you that goblet from the ewer of punch and hack off a bit of the ox, then tell us more of this new-model tactic of yours to break the pike hedge, eh?”

In Bili’s absence, Rahksahnah sat on a low camp stool in the small pavilion they two shared. By the dim, flaring light of a lamp, she was patiently rehoning the edge of her MoonMaiden saber with stone and oil, her sinewy, weather-browned hands moving with the sureness of long practice at their task. She had let down her long hair, and the gleaming, ebon cascade reflected almost as much of the lamplight as did the length of oiled steel she held.

Then, silent as death itself, from the darkness of the smaller, outer chamber of the canvas pavilion, stepped a huge feline. The beast was of a golden chestnut hue, with the ghosts of slightly darker rosettes faintly visible here and there about the body. And that body bulked big-boned and powerful, with smoothly rippling muscles, and large paws housing a full complement of eighteen sharp retractable claws. But his most easily seen armament consisted of his huge white cuspids—long, thick, sharp-pointed fangs the needle tips of which were nearly an inch below his lower jaw when it was shut.

His overall size—he stood almost ten hands at the withers—those fearsome fangs and one other facet of his outward appearance set him and his ilk apart from all other felines of this land; that other facet sparkled in the depths of his wide-set amber eyes, and it was intelligence. True intelligence, not the mere cunning of some beast of prey. And there was yet another, though in visible, quality that he owned: telepathy.

The cat advanced a few feet into the inner chamber, in the direction of the busy woman, then sank onto his thick haunches, bringing his long, furry, white-tipped tail to lap over his forepaws. So seated, his big head was almost on a level with hers.

“Mate of my cat brother, Chief Bili,” he silently beamed to her familiar mind, “if only you two legs would breed for claws and teeth of a respectable size, you would not need these sabers and axes and whatnot that must so often be re-edged.”

Without looking up, she answered him just as soundlessly. “If properly wielded, axe or saber or sword can shear through or penetrate armors of metal, against which your claws and your fangs are useless, Chief Whitetip. Have you now any more opinions to state? Have you eaten this day, or would you care for some cheese?”

The cat gaped his jaws sufficiently to allow a vast expanse of red-pink tongue to emerge and glide raspingly over his thin lips and their furry peripheries. Closing his eyes to mere slits, he sighed audibly in a surfeit of happy gustatory memory. “Thank you, but no, mate-of-my-brother. I found a tasty young goat wandering on the other side of the stream. He was juicy and tender and just the right size for a fine meal.”

As her hands moved the saber to concentrate the strokes of the stone on another section of the blade, Rahksahnah asked, “And what of these folk we go to fight, these Skohshuns—what saw you of them? How near are they to this place?”

The big cat slid forward onto his belly and rested his chin upon his forepaws. “A short march the other side of this stream is a low ridge, and beyond it is a small valley that angles toward the north; this valley is flanked by other ridges and in its center runs a smaller stream that joins this larger one a mile or so to the eastward. The road of tree trunks goes over the nearer ridge and through that valley, along the east bank of the smaller stream. The Skohshuns are camped on and about the two flanking ridges, and I think they mean to block that little valley with their army, when next Sacred Sun shines.”

It stood to reason, thought Rahksahnah. The Skohshuns had been able to field very little heavy-armed cavalry to start with, and last autumn’s battles had almost extirpated those few. That meant that the Skohshun pike hedge would have little if any horse to guard against a flank attack, so throwing the pike line across a narrow vale and anchoring the vulnerable flanks on ground too rough or precipitous or wooded to allow for passage of mounted men was a sensible idea.

“How many watchers have they on the ridge closest to the larger stream?” she beamed to the cat. “And are there any troops making ready to block the ford in the morning?”

“No,” the cat replied, “none of these twolegs-with-the-overlong-spears are any closer to this place than the north side of the first ridge... at least, they were not when I left to come here.”

“Just so,” Rahksahnah nodded, while silently beaming her thoughts to the feline. “They could easily have moved to new and more threatening positions whilst you were not there to observe them. So go back across the stream and watch for any change in their ranks, any movements out of their camps. But don’t come back here to let us know; farspeak us the message.”

“I cannot farspeak your mind, mate-of-my-brother,” said Whitetip. “Yours is simply one of those twoleg minds that I cannot range.”

“No, I know you can’t,” she replied. “But you can farspeak Bili or Captain Fil Tyluh or Lieutenant Kahndoot, and all of them are here in camp. But you must go back, for this mad king has not and will not send out twoleg scouts or even post a decent camp guard for the night, so the squadron must have the benefit of your observation of the enemy to be certain that we are not surprised by a sudden attack by dark or dawn.”

Not bothering to shield a mind seething with most unflattering opinions regarding King Mahrtuhn’s probable antecedents, personal traits, usual practices and present lack of foresight, the huge feline flowed effortlessly back onto his big feet and stalked out of the pavilion, his white-tipped tail swishing his displeasure. Not only must he swim back over that icy-cold stream, but the scent of the night air presaged at least a splattering of rain before the dawn, and he had anticipated sleeping it out in the dry comfort of a tent, not under the dripping leaves of some misbegotten tree.

But he was a cat of Clan Morguhn by free choice, not by a mere accident of birth, and Bili of Morguhn was his chief as well as his cat brother. The black-haired mate of his chosen chief and brother spoke for the Morguhn in his absence; this, Whitetip knew, and so—knowing well the duties and obligations of an obedient clans cat, for he was, himself, a sept chief—the prairiecat obeyed.

Upon Bili’s return from the royal pavilion, Rahksahnah recounted the information brought by the cat, whereupon the young commander mindcalled his principal lieutenants, those of them as were mindspeakers. He sent his two guards in search of the others.

First to arrive was Lieutenant Kahndoot of the Moon Maidens. Though but of average height, the woman was chunky and powerful and the only other person in the squadron, male or female, who had proved able to handle Bili’s big axe as well as did he... or almost as well. Alone of the contingent of surviving Moon Maidens who had followed their hereditary leader—the brahbehrnuh, now called Rahksahnah by all—into this savage, often hostile land, Kahndoot had not yet done the announced will of the Silver Lady, the Moon Goddess, and taken a man as mate and battle companion, for all that she had given up the ways of the irrevocably lost Hold of the Maidens of the Moon and no longer had a woman as lover and battle mate, either. When anyone presumed to ask her, she would simply smile and shrug and state that she had not as yet found a male who suited her and was uncommitted to another Maiden.

Hard upon Kahndoot’s heels came Captain Fil Tyluh and Lieutenant Frehd Brakit, both Freefighter officers, both younger sons of Middle Kingdoms nobility and, perforce, making their way in the world by hiring out their swords and fighting skills to those in need of a few bravos or a temporary army.

Bili’s maternal heritage was of a Middle Kingdoms noble house, and he had, moreover, fostered and had his arms training and experienced his first few years of warfare at the violent court of the Iron King of Harzburk, so he frequently understood Freefighters better than he did his part-Ehleen paternal relatives, and he always had felt more at home with the burker mercenary soldiers than with either Horseclans Kindred or Ehleen aristocracy.

The last three subordinate officers to arrive crowded in at the same time. One was a distant cousin of Bili’s in the paternal line. Like Bili, he was of mixed blood—part Horseclans Kindred, part Ehleen, although he and most of his peers considered themselves to be Kindred, nothing else, nothing less—and like Bili, he was holder of a hereditary title in the Confederation, whence most of them had originally come. He was Vahrohneeskos—he was called “baronet” by the Freefighters—Gneedos Kahmruhn of Skaht.

Vahk Soormehlyuhn and Vahrtahn Panosyuhn bore a clear racial similarity to each other and a less striking one to Rahksahnah and Kahndoot. The two were Ahrmehnee warriors, and they shared command of the contingent of their tribesmen who made up a part of Bili’s squadron.

Bili nodded curt greetings and said, “Don’t bother to get comfortable, any of you; this won’t take long. Then you must all go back and spread the word, but quietly, amongst those you directly command, bidding them do the same amongst their own subordinates. I want no big, loud-spoken, easily overheard meetings, you see. What I have had done for me—for us, rather—would be considered strictly dishonorable by the sovran we now serve.

“Whitetip, the prairiecat, left New Kuhmbuhluhnburk well before our own departure and has been scouting out our line-of-march, with orders to mindspeak me from afar only in the event of his discovery of an ambush site, ready-manned and awaiting our column.

“When it became clear that King Mahrtuhn intended to halt and camp here for the night, I farspoke Whitetip and sent him on across the stream to try to find trace of the Skohshuns and possibly determine their distance from us. That he did, and more. He brought the report to Rahksahnah whilst I was still at the royal pavilion, this night.

“By Whitetip’s witness, these Skohshuns are about as demented or, at the least, as strategically unschooled as the royal personage we now serve. They have gone into camp a good hour or more of marching time from yonder ford, and although they too have thrown out a few pickets, they are clearly not preparing emplacements for engines with which to harass those making use of the ford, have not even occupied the crest of the ridge that lies between the ford and their camp and, indeed, have a campsite every bit as ill defended as is this one.”

Vahk Soormehlyuhn, the bald, gray-bearded elder of the two Ahrmehnee, asked, “How many of them are there, Dook Bili?”

The broad, thick shoulders of the young thoheeks rose then fell in a shrug. “Intelligent as are the prairiecats, Lieutenant Vahk, numbers larger than a bare score or so have ever been beyond their calculation abilities. But he did say that their camp covered two hillocks on either side of a vale through which the road runs and in which he thinks they mean to take their stand on the morrow and so force a battle. Lacking cavalry as they do, that would be the sensible thing—to run their flanks up the slopes on either side. That’s what I’d do in their circumstances, anyway. Either that or form my pikes up into a porcupine... but of course the ever-present danger to the porcupine formation is that it is damned hard to maintain that formation should it be necessary to move forward, backward or sideways for any reason, most especially over the type of terrain we’ll be fighting on.

“There is one thing that might be to our advantage or just as easily to our bloody disadvantage, considering that battles seldom go as you plan them. Whitetip noted that a stream, a smaller tributary of this one beside which we are camped, flows southward smack down the middle of that vale, with the road paralleling it.

“Now, if it flows sufficiently shallow, if the bottom be firm and even and if these Skohshuns are proved not astute enough to have blocked the way with felled trees or boulders or suchlike, it just might be the key to more easily breaching their hedge. Those poor pikemen would have more than enough to do merely keeping their balance on cold-numbed feet and slippery rocks, while handling twoscore or more pounds of hardwood and steel against the big targets presented by horsemen, but if they are suddenly assaulted by fleet, nimble, hard-to-close-with opponents engaging in a new and unorthodox maneuver... ?

“Of course, my folk, this is but idle and probably hopeless speculation, for no seasoned commander who is not either addled or senile is going to put good men in so exposed—obviously exposed—a position without giving them the cover of an abattis. Therefore, I think we had best anticipate attacking on the levelest stretch of ground we can espy, which will likely mean up the road to their lines. And because the road clearly offers an ideal avenue for a cavalry charge, no doubt the hedge will be thickest thereabouts, too.

“So look you for a brisk engagement, a hard fight and a good possibility of heavy losses despite our training, our heavier armor and the body shields.”

Captain Fil Tyluh spoke as Bili paused to take a draft from a jack of ale.

“I have no doubt that we can break the hedge, Duke Bili, for a brief time, anyway—it’s all been done many times ere this, up north, in the Middle Kingdoms. But there are just too few of us, even before battle casualties, to improve upon the breach or even to hold our initial gains. Can we be sure, certain sure, that this King Mahrtuhn will charge with his three battles to consolidate that for which we will have fought so hard?”

Bili shook his shaven head brusquely. “In one word, Fil, no; no, we cannot. As ever—at least since we have known him—King Mahrtuhn will ride when and where his honor drives him... and his heir will be beside him.

“However, I have the sworn word of Prince Byruhn that he will definitely bring his own battle to support us whenever we have clearly weakened or breached the pike hedge.”

Tyluh slammed fist to callused palm. “But, Duke Bili, that’s not enough! His grace, Prince Byruhn, commands the smallest, most ill-armed and -mounted battle of the three, dammit. Even adding our numbers—or what numbers we might by then have still on their feet—to his, there still will be insufficient strength to roll up the exposed flanks fast enough so they can’t reclose, likely trapping us all behind their line in the process, to be slain at their leisure.”

Bili clenched his two big hands together, snapping the knuckles with loud cracks which punctuated his words. “Yes, Fil, I know; I, too, have thought it through, and all that you say is only too true. That’s precisely why I’ve come to at least one decision.

“That decision is this, .and all of you hear me well: We will do what we have said we would do. That is, we will perform our function or all die in the attempt. But when once that section of the hedge is broken and in temporary confusion, our horse holders are to bring all of the mounts as near as possible and we will withdraw, remount and retire; that’s if none of the battles come to reinforce us.

“However, in the event that Prince Byruhn brings his battle alone, we still will withdraw, but we will allow his attack to screen our withdrawal. The only circumstance in which we will not withdraw will be if all three battles come to consolidate the victory, in which case we will remount, but then return to the fight a-horse.

“Do all of you fully comprehend all that I’ve just said? If so, I’ll now take on questions or objections.”