The Horseclans are searching for their legendary homeland—and death awaits any who get in their way!
Land of legend beyond a river of blood…
The call has gone out and the clans are gathering to hear the words of their war chief, Milo of Morai—words of prophecy that promise an end to wandering and a land of their own, the legendary homeland from which their ancestors had come ages ago.
Yet before they can abandon their present hunting grounds, the Horseclansmen have one last debt to settle. They must rescue several of their children from kidnappers and teach their enemies the price of harming any people of the clans.
But the path to both vengeance and their long-lost home will lead them down a treacherous road and straight into a sword-swinging battle with two powerful armies—a war in which there can be only one victor left alive…
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 Great River, which had shone bright blue at a distance, rolled muddy-brown as it slid under the blunt prow of the broad row-barge. Senior Trader Shifty Stuart occasionally spat from the cud of tobacco in his cheek into the river, but he did not bother to look at the water, nor did he look back to the west, at Traderstown, which the vessel had just left. His eyes were for the east, for Tworivertown, where he would shortly make landfall with his cargo of furs, hides, fine horn-bows, matchless felts and blankets of nomad weave, beautifully worked leather items and a vast assortment of oddments obtained by the far-ranging horse-nomads of the transriverine plains by trade or warfare from other folk farther west, south or north.
This was not Stuart’s first such return from a long summer of trading with the nomads. For sixteen summers he had roved the plains country in a caravan of trader wagons—endless days of baking heat, choking dust, swarms of biting flies and other noxious insects, the incessant lowing of the huge oxen that drew the oversized, high-sided wagons on their five or six-foot wheels from one clan meeting place to another or, every fifth summer, up to the semi-permanent Tribe Camp for the quintennial meeting of the chiefs of all or most of the sixty to seventy clans of horse-nomads that had ruled the plains for most of the five or six hundred years since the fabled Mercan civilization had gone down in death and destruction at the hands of some far-distant enemy who must have suffered equal or worse devastation and decimation, since no invading armies had ever followed up the bombs and plagues.
Stuart had heard all the tales, and he even believed some of them, for he had seen with his own two eyes the cracked and splintered shards of the network of fine roads that had once crisscrossed the land, and the long-dead and overgrown, but still impressive by their far-flung hugeness, cities of the plains. On three occasions, he had overruled the superstitious maundering of his wagoners and associates to camp in the ruins of one of the larger of these, that one that the nomads called Ohmahah, and on each visit he and his men had garnered several hundredweights of assorted metal scraps out of the ruins, for all that the nomads had doubtlessly combed and recombed them for generations.
Others of the old tales were believed only by fools and children, opined Stuart, such as the yarns concerning men traveling to and walking upon the moon, or living beneath the sea or crossing the sea in boats lacking either oars or sails. Silly, asinine nonsense, all of it!
The senior trader leaned his weight against the massive timber beside him—one of four, two each at prow and stern, which were built into the flat bottom of the barge and ran through every level to more than twenty feet above the top deck, where they supported the iron rings through which was let a hempen cable over two feet in thickness and extending from the ferry dock of Traderstown to the ferry dock of Tworivertown, enabling the ponderous, top heavy barges to bear men and women, wagons, livestock and goods across the wide water in any weather and in complete safety.
He cocked up one leg to rest a booted foot upon the low rail and began to calculate his probable profits. Then a hand was tugging gently at his sleeve. He turned his head to see Second Oxman Bailee.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Mistuh Stuart, suh, but it’s thet there nomad gal, she wawnts to git out to squat. Ever sincet I beat her good fer messin’ up the wagon, she’s done been real good ‘bout thet. D’you rackon...”
Stuart waved a hand impatiently. Bailee was a good oxman, when he wasn’t drunk at least, but he took forever to say anything in his whining, nasal, Ohyoh-mountaineer drawl.
“Yes, yes, Bailee, let the little slut out. It’s safe to now—we’re almost halfway across.”
As an afterthought, he yelled at the oxman’s back, “And when she’s emptied herself, bring her up here to me.”
The trader settled back against the immobile timber baulk with a self-satisfied smile. In his recent calculations he had clean forgot to add the probable sale price of the girl and of the two other younkers, as well, not to mention the three fine, spirited plains ponies. And even if she and the boys were to bring Stuart not a penny, still the last few weeks of use of her slender, toothsome body of nights would be almost recompense enough.
The treks outward, in the springtime, were not so bad, for the trading trains most always carried along comely young female slaves for sale to the nomads. Unlike most of the eastern, civilized slave buyers, the horsemen of the plains cared not a scrap of moldy hide whether or not their human purchases were virgins. Indeed, they would pay more for a pregnant girl or one nursing a new brat than for the very prettiest virgin or barren slut. Therefore, all the traders and many a common wagoner or oxman usually had a soft-breasted bedwarmer every westward leg of the year’s trek, until she quickened or was sold into some clan or other.
But the returns usually were companionless. Providing food and water for any chit that had for whatever reason not been sold by the end of trading was unbusinesslike. Nomads would not take a sickly or lunatic slave girl even as an outright gift, and many a trader drove these unprofitable leftovers out into the vast sea of grasses to fend for themselves. But Stuart was a bit more kindly. He had a guard or oxman slit the creatures’ throats and leave the carcasses for the wolves and buzzards.
The horse-nomads only bought, however; they never sold slaves of any description. For all that, the rarely captured nomad women brought high prices from eastern buyers, while a trader lucky enough to acquire even one little nomad boy could practically name his own price from the slave mongers who had journeyed inland from the coastal lands of the Ehleenee, no trader who valued his yearly custom and his hide would so much as mention his willingness to deal in nomads to any of those shaggy, smelly, flea-bitten, but grim and ferocious warriors and chiefs with whom he dealt.
Nor could an enterprising man simply snatch a few of the immensely profitable nomad spawn and bear them back eastward with him, for his own guards—hired here and there, from this clan or that, for the season—would not only desert him, but would bring back the fierce warriors of the closest clan to wreak a horrible vengeance upon the kidnappers and free the captives.
“You’re a dang lucky son of a bitch, Shifty Stuart!” the trader told himself for the umpteenth time in the last three weeks. “If them four savages had come a-riding into camp even two days earlier, wouldn’t ‘ve been a dang thing we could have done ‘cept to give ‘em a feed and a mebbe do a little trading for them raw hides and horns they had. With them dang Clan Muhkawlee guards still in camp. I’d ‘ve just had to watch a small fortune ride back off from me.”
Through the sleeve of his tough linen shirt, Stuart gingerly kneaded the healing but still painful stab wound in his upper arm, thinking, with a prickle of justifiable fear, “It were a near thing, though, fer all that. If thet young feller had got away...” He shuddered, his thoughts going back to tales he had heard of what had been done by vengeful nomads to would-be kidnappers of their kin. He shook his head. “Whoever would ‘ve thought a little squirt—he couldn’t ‘ve been more’n fifteen or sixteen, an’ dang skinny, to boot!—so groggy he couldn’t hardly stand up from the drug we’d snuck into his bowl of stew, could of kilt two growned men outright, hurt another so bad he died thet night, an’ stabbed or slashed four or five others, got on his horse and been on his way, afore ol’ Lyl sunk thet dart in his back?”
Fleetingly, the trader once more regretted the loss—unavoidable as it had been—of the third nomad boy, then shrugged, ruminating, “Ain’t no good to fret over spilt milk, I reckon. Mean as thet little bastid was, likely he’da had to be beat plumb to death afore a body got any use outen him, anyhow.”
Stuart grinned again. “Three hundred dollars apiece, mebbe more, them two younkers oughta bring me, oncet I gits ‘em to Fanduhsburk, mebbe twicet thet if I decides to take ‘em plumb to Looeezfilburk. Hell, mebbe I’ll do ‘er, been coon’s years sincet I’z in Looeezfilburk, an’ I’ll have me the gal to play with till we gets there, too. ‘Course, she’s gotta be gentled down some...”
He had been the first to take the girl, and the little minx had fought him like a scalded treecat—pummeling, punching, kicking and clawing until his arm wound had started to bleed again, not to mention tooth-tearing his bristly chin and very nearly biting his right ear off; which last injuries she had wrought on him after he had had her wrists and ankles securely tied to the wagon sides, nor was he the only man she had savagely marked. That he had successfully resisted the impulse to give her back as good or better with his big, bony fists and strictly forbidden any of the others with whom he shared the use of her to strike her face had been based upon a good, sound principle of business—broken noses and knocked-out teeth lowered the value of female slaves.
He had not, of course, expected her to be a virgin, nor had she been; no nomad girl ever was so for any length of time after attaining puberty.
“But,” he mused and again grinned to himself, “they says them there slave doctors in Fanduhsburk could make a virgin outen a thirty-year-old whore. Mebbe I oughta git ‘em to make this gal inta one? Hmm, I’ll think on it. She’d sure bring more thet way, eastern buyers likin’ virgins the way they does.”
He returned to his mental calculations for another few moments, then Bailee was shoving the girl to a place beside him at the rail, and he lost his train of thought. A glance downward gave him a glimpse only of the top of her head of dull, matted, dirty, dark-blond hair, for like all her people she was small, barely as high as his armpit.
The girl’s baggy trousers and full-sleeved shirt were both somewhat the worse for having been violently removed from her body on several occasions, as well as being filthy from having been lived in and slept in for the weeks since her capture. Her short boots of red felt and brown leather had survived in better condition, since she had been carefully locked out of sight in one of the big wagons for most of the journey.
She stood at the rail for some minutes, then shyly edged closer, closer, until her slender body was in contact with Stuart’s. Her grubby, broken-nailed, but slim and graceful right hand hesitantly extended to touch, then gently massage his genitals through the stuff of his clothing.
Stuart grinned. “Cain’t git enough of me, can you, baby doll?”
Without turning his head, he said, “Bailee, you can jest go on back, ‘bout your work. Me an’ this here little gal’s got us some palav’rin’ to do up here.”
The trader closed his eyes in ecstasy as the captive girl rubbed and kneaded and caressed his flesh, and he was completely unaware of her other hand’s activities, not even feeling the easing of the silver-hilted knife from out its sheath in the top of his right boot.
When he did feel the girl’s body begin to crouch lower, he began to turn to face her...and a white-hot agony lanced in behind his right knee! Even as he suddenly realized that the right leg no longer would support him, the girl—still firmly clutching his scrotum in her wiry grip—launched herself forward, over the rail. Stuart, screaming his agony and terror, was dragged over and down and into the muddy brown water of the Great River.