With clan feud brewing, only a journey to Milo’s past can call a halt to bloodshed...
In the evil time after civilization fell apart, the Undying High Lord Milo Morai gathered together as many children as he could save and set about teaching them the laws of survival.
Over the centuries, Milo’s children wandered the Sea of Grass, fighting and prospering and adding to their numbers until they became the mighty force known as the Horseclans. With time, some of their laws changed or were forgotten but there remained one that must never be broken—“Kindred must not fight Kindred!”
Yet now, clans Linsee and Skaht were on the brink of a bloodfeud that could spread like prairie fire throughout the Horseclans. Could even Milo smother the sparks of hatred before they blazed up to destroy all of the Horseclans?
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).
5 Stars! Very good horseclan story.
Great story of the beginning of the horseclans. Story moves along well and you never lose interest.HappyTraveler -- Amazon Reviews
I have been reading Adams for over twenty years and he always comes through.Eve44x -- Amazon Reviews
I have enjoyed the Horseclans Series when I was working and traveling. I have again undertaken to re-read the series and am enjoying it fully.Coach -- Amazon Reviews
This book is set after the human race is sent back to the beginning due to a nuclear war. The story starts well with a party from the Horseclan tribes on a hunt. The group consists of telepaths with their animal companions–also telepaths–hunters and Uncle Milo Morai. The latter is of unknown age but is rumoured to have lived for centuries.
After a fight between two young members of different clans, Milo strives to calm everyone down with a story of the past.
The book is well written, the story intriguing.Orchid -- Long and Short Reviews
The prairies and high plains, huge and vast and always awe-inspiring they lie. To the untrained or inexperienced eye, they seem mostly empty, devoid of the life with which they really, truly teem. The grasses—grama grass, blue grama grass, side oats grass, screw grass, tickle grass, buffalo grass and hundreds of other grasses—seem to roll like the waves of some endless sea with the gusts of the un-trammeled, ever-blowing winds. These hardy, long-acclimated wild grasses quickly choke out tender grasses loved by man as well as the frail, alien grain crops he was wont to cultivate when still his kind ruled this land.
Moving slowly across these grasslands, following water, graze and the dictates of the changing seasons, as did the bison before them, roam scattered herds of wild cattle. Each succeeding generation of these descendants of feral beef and milch stock is become longer of leg and horns, less bulky and more muscular. In a few areas, they have interbred with surviving bison. Privation has rendered both strains rangy and more hirsute than their domesticated ancestors, while constant predation has favored the survival and breeding of the quicker-tempered, incipiently deadly bovines.
Foremost among the predators preying upon these herds—as well as upon the herds of wild sheep on the high plains—are the packs of wild dogs that are metamorphosing into wolves a little more with each new litter of pups, being shaped by the demands of survival in a savage, merciless environment. Already become big, strong, fleet of foot and as adept at killing as any pureblood lupine, these packs follow the herds of wild cattle and bison hybrids in the long migrations from north to south, just as the long-extinct prairie wolves followed the huge bison herds that once roamed these same lands. The packs do the new herds the same service that the prairie wolves did the bison. They weed the herds of the old, the injured or maimed, the spindly or sickly, taking too the occasional calf.
Of course, the cattle are not the only prey of the packs. The dogs feed on any beast they can individually or collectively run down and dispatch—deer, antelope, wild swine, horses, goats, elk, hares and rabbits or rodents of any size arid kind, nonpoisonous reptiles and amphibians, other predators and, in an extreme case of hunger, each other.
For long and long, the packs had been the largest predators upon the plains and prairies, but now their hegemony was ending. Monstrous grizzly bears were descending from the mountains and emerging from the remote areas in which their species had survived the brief reign of firearm-bearing man. There were southerly-straying wolverines, too, and another race of outsize, exceedingly voracious mustelid, big as the very largest bear, though long-drawn-out and lighter in weight. Moreover, moving onto the prairies from the east were small prides of lions, as well as the occasional specimen of other big cats—all or most descendants of zoological garden or theme-park animals, as, too, were the tiny to large ruminants that had been breeding here and there and sometimes moving with the cattle herds in the warmer, more southerly reaches of the range.
In the wake of mankind, the grasslands had expanded apace and were still so doing. The roots of grasses and weeds and brush were helping water, sun, freezes and lack of maintenance to crack and sunder and bury macadam and concrete roads and streets, while rust, corrosion and decay ate away at railroad tracks. Spring floods first weakened, then tore away the bridges not destroyed by man in his terminal madness, and they also scoured the vulnerable floodplains of the deserted, ghost-haunted ruins that once had been thriving cities and towns.
Of the trees loved by man—peach, apple, cherry, walnut, pear, pecan and other crop trees and oaks, elms, maples, poplars, pines, firs and spruces—precious few have survived in the dearth of man’s incessant care. Now, once more, as it was before man strove to bend the land and all upon it to his will, hickories, burr oaks, scrubby hazels, chokecherries, wild plums and dogwoods, cottonwoods, basswoods and red elms are swiftly proliferating to fill their rightful niches.
Only circling hawk and soaring eagle now can see the lines that once delineated the grain fields, gardens, orchards and pastures of the reasoning, but arrogant and unwise, primate who so briefly ruled over this rich land.
Here and there lie tumbled, overgrown ruins—large and small, vast to almost nonexistent—most still showing the blackened traces of ancient fires, others only aggregations of weather-washed stones, broken bricks, rotted wood and pitted, red-rusty iron. In the long absence of those who built them, the ruins now provide home or lair or shelter to the multitudinous rodentia of the land, to the gaunt, rangy, feral cats, to snakes, lizards, toads, bats, nesting birds and hosts of insects and arachnids and worms.
Even in those places that hold no ruins more substantial can be found the windmill towers, all sagging and rust-pitted or gray-weathered and leaning a little farther from off their rotting footings with each season, like the few sorely wounded survivors on some vast battlefield.
Speak not too soon of the utter extirpation of man. His kind is not entirely missing from prairie and plains, although nowhere can he be found in his formerly huge numbers.
See, there, as the prairie sky begins to darken toward the encroaching night, one, two, three, many fires are becoming visible along the banks of a small, rushing stream. One could not see them earlier because, fueled by squawwood and sun-dried dung, they are all but smokeless. Bipedal figures move to and fro about these fires. Some are tending a small herd of whickering horses, while others prepare carcasses of deer and hare and other beasts for cooking, pick through baskets of gathered edible roots and plants or bring out saddle querns from the tents and begin to husk and winnow and then grind the painfully garnered wild grains.
Still others are laving their bodies in a sheltered backwater of the stream or washing their clothes on its banks.
Karee Skaht, her bath done, squatted on a flat, sun-warmed rock at the riverside, letting the ever-constant wind dry her bare, sun-browned body. She wrung out her long red-gold hair, then set about laving the sweat and dirt from her shirt and breeches—alternately soaking them with river water, then pounding them against the smooth surface of the rock with the calloused palms of her hard little hands.
In the wide, deep pool that spring floodwaters had excavated, others of the boys, girls and some of the leavening of slightly older warriors who went to make up this autumn hunting party bathed and swam, frolicked and rough-housed, while an equal number worked along the banks and awaited their own turn at the cooling, cleansing, soul-satisfying comfort of the water.
After a few moments, Karee was joined on the rock by Gy Linsee. At fourteen summers, he was only some half-year her elder, but he already overtopped her by nearly two full hands, and a wealth of round muscles rippled beneath his nut-brown skin. It was these round muscles, the big bones beneath, along with his almost black hair and dark-brown eyes that attested to the fact that one or more of his ancestors had not been born of Horseclans stock, but gatherhad been adopted into Clan Linsee—one of the original clans descended of the Sacred Ancestors.
Noticing the two on the rock, another boy swam to where he had left his clothing, then came over to squat on Karee’s other side... a good bit closer than Gy had presumed to squat. This one was a much more typical Horseclansman—small-boned, flat-muscled, with hair the hue of wheatstraw and pale-blue eyes, his weather-darkened skin stippled with freckles.
Although not really closely related, this boy was of Karee’s own clan and, at sixteen summers, was already a proven, blooded warrier. On the second raid he had ridden in the summer just past, he had slain a foeman with spear and saber in single combat, capturing his victim’s horse and most of his weapons and gear. The Skaht clan bard, old Gaib Skaht, had even added a new couplet about the exploits of Rahjuh Vawn of Skaht to the Song of Skaht.
Karee only glanced briefly at Rahjuh, however, then turned the gaze of her blue-green eyes back to the Linsee boy, who had finished wringing out his own long, thick hair and now was sending up sprays of water each time his broad palm slammed down on his sopping shirt and breeches and the thick-woven squares of woolen cloth which the Linsees, the Morguhns, the Danyuhlzes, the Esmiths and some few other clans had of recent years taken to lapping over and around their feet and ankles before donning their boots.
For an absent moment, Karee wondered to herself just how and why so strange a custom had commenced and persisted, wondered too how it would feel to wear a set of the outre items of apparel. But these were only fleeting thoughts, and her mind and gaze quickly returned to the main object of her attentions and present interest.
No one of her own clansfolk had hair so darkly lustrous as that of this Linsee boy. The rays of the westering Sacred Sun now were bringing out dark-red highlights from wherever they touched upon that so-dark hair. She also found somehow satisfying the rippling of the muscles of his back and his thick shoulders as he slapped dry his wetted and rewetted clothing.
The Skaht girl caught the fringes of a narrow-beam, personal-level mindspeak communication—the telepathy practiced every day by the roughly three out of five Horseclansfolk so talented—this directed to the big Linsee boy.
“Gy, the stag is now all skinned and butchered. Since it was your kill, the heart, liver and kidneys are yours by right, and the tenderloin, too, if you want it. Do you want them raw or cooked?”
Still pounding away at his sopping clothing, the boy replied silently, “Stuff the heart with some of those little wild carrots and some sprigs of mint; I’ll cook it myself, later on. I’ll have the liver raw... shortly. But let the kidneys go to Crooktail, for her it was first scented the stag and flushed him out of heavy cover that I might arrow him, then ride him down.”
Behind Karee, Gy and Rahjuh, a prairiecat—larger than the biggest puma, with the sharp, white-glinting points of fangs near a full handspan long depending below the lower jaw and with the long, sinewy, slender legs of a coursing beast—clambered up from out of the pool, claws scraping on the rock. At some time in her life, the cat’s tail had been broken a third of the way between tip and body and, in healing, had left the final third canting at a permanent angle from the rest of the thick, furry appendage.
When at last fully upon the rock, the big cat shook herself thoroughly, showering Karee and both boys impartially with myriad droplets of cold river water.
“You half-dog eater of dung! Walking flea factory!” Rahjuh shouted and broadbeamed all at once, turning and shaking a clenched fist in the prairiecat’s direction. “I was almost dry, too, you coupler with swine!”
Serenely ignoring the outburst of insults and the shaken fist of the angered boy, Crooktail paced with dignity over to where Gy Linsee squatted. Her big head swept down and then up, running her wide, coarse, red-pink tongue the full length of his spine. Then she seated herself beside him, her crooked tail lapped over her forepaws, mindspeaking the while.
“Twoleg-called-Gy, you remembered how much this cat loves kidneys. You will be as good a friend of cats as is your sire. You will be as good a hunter, too, and as good a warrior. You will be a mighty warrior and long remembered by your get and by theirs as the bards sing of you.”
The big, dark-haired boy gripped his clothing with one hand that the currents of the pool might not bear them away. His other brawny arm he threw about the cat, squeezing her damp body firmly but with the self-control of one who knows well his considerable strength.
A few yards upstream from this tableau, on a higher, moss-fringed rock, three adult warriors sat abreast, sending up into the clear skies clouds of blue-gray smoke from their pipes. Even as they observed the cavortings in and about the pool below, they chatted, both aloud and silently.
Farthest upstream sat Hwahltuh Linsee, youngest full brother of the present chief of that Kindred clan, a permanent subchief in status and a subchief of this hunt, as well. He had seen more than thirty summers come and go; beast-killing and man-slaying were both old stories to him. It had been a knife—near on fifteen years agone, when he had been but a younker—that had deeply gashed and left a crooked scar across his blond-stubbled cheek. The hard-swung sword of a Dirtman—one of the farmers who worked the lands fringing the prairie, despised by and regularly preyed upon by the Horseclansmen, themselves fearing the always costly raids and intensely hating the nomads who attacked them—had cost him the most of his left ear, while his canted nose had been smashed flat in a long-ago running battle with non-Kindred plains rovers when his opponent—his last dart cast, his swordblade broken—had bashed him in the face with the nicked and dented iron boss of his targe.
Spouting blood, blind with agony and barely able to breathe, Hwahltuh had closed with the rider, dragged him from out of his saddle and throttled him with his bare hands. But the nose and the damaged jaw below had not healed properly, and as his speech was sometimes difficult of understanding, he had for years communicated principally by mindspeak, where possible.
Farthest downstream on the mossy-grown rock sat Tchuk Skaht, five or six summers Hwahltuh’s senior. He was but a middling warrior; however, he was known far and wide as a true master hunter and tracker, so since this was a hunt and not a raid, he was chief of it. Not that he was not a brave and strong man; at the age of twenty-odd, on the high plains, he had fought and slain a wounded bear armed with only his dirk—a rare feat of skill and daring of which the bards of many a clan still sang on winter nights around the lodge fires.
The black-haired man who sat between them was taller and heavier of build—though not with fat, of which there was none upon his body. His name was Milo Morai, but his two present human companions, like all the Horseclansfolk—male and female, young and old—called him Uncle Milo. No one knew his age or just how long he had ridden with and among the Kindred and their forebears. He would live a year or two with a clan, then ride on of a day to the camp of another... and still another; possibly, he would return a score of years later, unmarked, unchanged, with no slightest sign of aging.
And there existed nowhere any Clan Morai, only the one man, Uncle Milo, peer of any chief. The most ancient of the bardsongs mentioned him, the rhymed genealogies of almost every clan told of his exploits in war and the chase; indeed, if some few of the oldest bard songs were to be believed in entirety, he it was had succored the Sacred Ancestors after the Great Dyings and truly set what were to become the Kindred on their path to their present near mastery of plains and prairie.
But there was no denying, for believers and non-believers alike, that Uncle Milo or someone exactly like him had been present in one clan camp or another, had ridden with the Kindred on hunts and raids and treks, for tenscore summers and more, for such a presence was mentioned in the songs—history-genealogies—of clan after clan, and clan songs of this sort never contained aught save bald truth.
Yet no man or woman, no boy or girl, no prairiecat of any sex or age, thought of Uncle Milo as being in any way unnatural or supernatural, for he lived, slept, ate and played among them. He sweated when they sweated, made love no differently than any other clansman, and bled when injured, though he healed very fast. His bladder and bowels required periodic emptying, too, like those of any other living creature. He only differed from them in that he neither aged nor died... or so it seemed.
The respect the Kindred afforded this man they all called Uncle Milo contained no awe and was in no way worship. Rather was it but an amplification of the natural respect granted to the old and the proven-wise of the clans, the deference due any chief—for, as the one and only member of his “clan,” Milo was automatically “chief” or Morai—plus the admiration of a warrior and hunter of consummate skills.
Up there on the high, moss-fringed rock, between Tchuk Skaht and Uncle Milo, lay another prairiecat. This one was a good deal bigger than Crooktail, he was a male and his furry pelt enclosed nearly three hundred pounds of muscle and sinew and bone. His name was Snowbelly, and he, too, was a subchief of this autumn hunt. He had had his swim and now lay white belly up, thick, powerful hind legs splayed widely and taloned forelegs bent at the wrists that the cool, evening wind might dry him more readily.
Despite his lolling head and closed eyes, however, the big cat lay fully awake and as alert as always, his razor-keen senses missing neither sound nor any windborne scent, most of his mind engaged, though, in listening to and occasionally contributing to the conversation of the men. Of course, his “speech” was perforce all telepathic—the “mindspeak” of the Horseclans—since his kind had never developed the vocal apparatus necessary for true, oral speech. But he emitted a constant, rumbling, contrabasso purr of appreciation for the thorough scratching that Milo and Tchuk were giving his exposed chest, belly, legs and throat.
Hwahltuh Linsee made a peculiar clucking sound and shook his head, silently beaming, “Crooktail should have given that impudent Skaht boy’s damned rump a good sharp nip or two, in return for his insults. He had but just climbed out of the damned pool. So how were a few more drops of water going to do him harm or injury, hey?”
While Tchuk Skaht glowered at the subchief from under bushy brows, Snowbelly mindspoke, “No, not so. This cat laid down the law to all the rest when first we assembled for this hunt: if fight the cats must, they are to fight other cats—opponents who, like them, have fangs and claws and tough skins. Brothers and sisters of cats though you Kindred are, you are all just too thin of skin, too easily injured. So the wise and prudent Crooktail comported herself entirely properly, you see.”
The big cat abruptly rolled over onto his belly and began to lick down the chest hairs rumpled by the scratching fingers of the two men, continuing his “speaking” all the while.
“Nonetheless, I do agree with Subchief Hwahltuh that that young Skaht should learn and show more respect for Crooktail, for she is both a fine hunter and a savage warrior, in addition to throwing consistently strong, healthy kittens.”
Painfully striving to master his righteous anger at this outrage—unsolicited, completely unwarranted criticism of a Skaht by a mere Linsee!—Tchuk spoke aloud and as calmly as he could manage, shrugging. “Well, young Rahjuh is a bit higher-strung than are many... but then, so too is his sire. And no doubt the shaking of our esteemed cat sister startled him, eh?”
Milo Morai chuckled. “Before that boy learns anything else, he’d be wise to learn to keep his thoughts shielded from those who can sense such in the minds of the untrained or unwary. He may well have been a bit startled by his sudden, unexpected shower, but his outburst was the spawn of something else entirely.
“Be warned. He means to couple with the girl, Karee Skaht, during this hunt and intends that no one and nothing shall impede that purpose. Just now, her very obvious admiration of the big, straight-shooting Linsee boy has set him aflame with jealousy and jealous rage. You’d best have a word or three with him, Chief Tchuk, else he means to goad Gy Linsee into a death match; his thoughts are just that vicious at this moment.”
Tchuk Skaht but shrugged once again. “Rahjuh is free to think whatsoever he likes, but he and every other Skaht in this camp knows full well that they’ll surely answer to me if even anything so serious as a bloodmatch is fought, much less a death match between a proven warrior and a boy still undergoing his weapons training.
“As regards Karee Skaht, I have known her all her life and I’m here to tell you all that she’s as smart as any and a bit smarter than many. She’ll know better than to engage in anything more than lighthearted sport with a man of alien blood, no matter how big his muscles, how true his eye or how heavy a bow he can draw.
“Besides”—although his teeth showed in a supposed grin, the hard, malicious glint in his eyes gave the lie to the humor of lips and bantering tone—“the seed of something like a mere Linsee could no more quicken a true-born Horseclanswoman than could that of a Dirtman, a boar hog or any other beast...”
A low, inarticulate growl was Subchief Hwahltuh Linsee’s only reply. He came to his feet as if powered by springs of tempered steel, his scar-furrowed face all twisted and quivering with the intensity of his deadly fury; his eyes were slitted, his knees flexed and his right hand clamped about the worn hilt of the heavy saber he had already half drawn from its scabbard.
And in an eyeblink, Chief Tchuk Skaht was facing him, bared steel at low guard, ready for slash or thrust or parry, his body crouched for combat, his lips peeled back from off his teeth in a grin of pure bloodlusting anticipation and joy.
But before either man could strike or even make to do so, Milo Morai was suddenly between them, sneering, his voice dripping scorn, disgust and disapprobation.
“Now, by Sun and Wind! I asked your clan chiefs for grown men of sound mind to head this hunt, and I’d assumed that that was what they’d given. But what have we here? A brace of drooling, bloodthirsty idiots, the bodies of warriors in which reside the minds of ill-disciplined children. No less than twice, now, have Skahts and Linsees ridden the raid against each other. Kindred shedding the blood of their Kinsfolk! Do you two impetuous fools mean to make it three times? Mean to upgrade it to the status of a clan feud, a vendetta? You both know what that would mean.
“Have either of you two hotheads ever seen a clan dispersed after a Council of Kindred Chiefs had revoked their kinship? Of course you haven’t. Neither of you were born the last time it had to be done. But I saw it, forty-six summers ago, it was.
“Of a time, there were two Kindred clans, Lehvee and Braizhoor. Their mutual raiding and stock stealing and murdering of each other had progressed to the point where their warriors did battle in the ten-year tribe camp. Around and about and even within the very pavilion of the Chiefs’ Council did these lawless, arrogant men hack at and slash and stab one at the other, nor did they, any of them, even hesitate to let flow the lifeblood of those brave Kindred who made to mediate and put a stop to so grave a profanation of that Council Camp. In the end, warriors of other clans had to be called and gathered to disarm these miscreants by force of arms.
“For many days and nights did the Council ponder the matter, questioning the chiefs of the two clans and exploring any avenue that might solve the matter on a more or less permanent basis. But the warriors, subchiefs and chiefs of Lehvee and Braizhoor foiled the well-meant plans and schemes of the Council at each and every turn. They all thirsted for the blood of each other and meant to allow nothing and no one—Council, custom, Sacred Kinship, even the very Law itself—to stand between them and the slaking of that unnatural thirst.
“When one of the older, wiser chiefs of the Council made the suggestion that one of the two warring clans be sent far to the southeast and the other far to the northwest, there to stay until time and newborn leaders had smoothed over their differences, the chiefs of both Lehvee and Braizhoor stated that such a plan would only work for as long as it took the two clans to force-march to proximity again.
“In the end, after much exceedingly painful soul-searching the Council decided on the necessary course. An example was to be made of the lawless clans, an example clear for all to see. They were to be disowned by the Tribe, have their Kinship revoked and be driven out to live or to die upon the pitiless prairie.”
Both Hunt Chief Tchuk Skaht and Subchief Hwahltuh Linsee had paled beneath their tans, horrified by the images of Morai’s mindspeak. Slowly, Milo reached forth and took the sabers easily from grasps suddenly gone weak and nerveless before he went on with his sorry tale.
“Chief Djeen of Morguhn, who headed that Council, ordered first that all boys and girls who were not yet proven warriors be dispersed amongst the other clans there present in the camp, to be adopted into these clans when and if they proved their worth and loyalty. Women and older girls of the two miscreant clans were given the choice of slavery or an honorable marriage into another clan, and, naturally, most chose the latter.
“The horses and the herds of Lehvee and Braizhoor, the tents and yurts, the wagons and carts, clothing, tools and weapons, indeed, every last thing that any of them owned, all were divided amongst the gathered clans. All that done, the still-unrepentent chiefs and subchiefs and warriors of those onetime Kindred clans were driven before the Council and the assembled folk and cats of all the clans.
“A right pitiful-looking lot they were too, as I recall. They went clothed in such poor rags as they had been able to find discarded, mostly barefoot and all weaponless. Their hair had been shorn to the very scalps and their faces all were drawn with pain, for the bowstring thumb of each had but just been broken, smashed with a smith’s sledge, that they might never again draw the hornbow of the Kindred.
“Before all of the folk and cats assembled there, the crimes of Lehvee and Braizhoor were recited and the just punishments decided upon by the Council were pronounced. Gravely, Chief Djeen of Morguhn stated that there no longer existed amongst the true Kindred, the descendants of the Sacred Ancestors, any such clans as Lehvee and Braizhoor, that the gaggle of men owned no protection under Horseclans Law or customs and that if ever, after this day, they should dare to enter any camp of the Kindred, they might be done to death or enslaved just like any other alien.
“Each of the men then were given a knife, a pouch of jerky and a waterskin. So supplied, they were chivvied through the camps and onto the open prairie at lance points by mounted clansmen, then kept moving farther and farther for days by relentless relays of warriors and cats. All of the bards were ordered by the Council to forget the very names of Lehvee and Braizhoor.”
With the skill born of long practice, Milo Morai’s mindspeak had not so much painted a picture as actually put his audience there, at the very scenes of that long-ago happening. The experience had left the men visibly shaken... as he had intended them to be.
Sternly, Milo said, “Now, gentlemen, now, Tchuk and Hwahltuh, is that what you two want for your own futures, eh? Your wives all wedded to men of other clans? Your children reared into those clans? The very names of Linsee and Skaht forgot of all the Kindred for all future time, while you lie naked and helpless and starving upon some faraway piece of prairie, there to die miserably and without honor, your bodies rent to shreds by wild beasts? If that is what you both want, gentlemen, here are your sabers—have at it!”
But the two clansmen recoiled from the familiar proffered hilts as if the weapons were suddenly become coiled vipers.
Milo nodded brusquely. “Very well, then. Now at long last the two of you are showing some of the intelligence that the Sacred Ancestors bequeathed you and your forebears.
“Hear me and heed you well my words. As you know, I am here among you at the express behest of the present Tribal Council. The chiefs of that Council are most disturbed at your ongoing mutual hostilities. They—and I, their surrogate—do not care a pinch of moldy turkey dung about what may or may not have begun these hostilities. They simply want them stopped for good and all... lest it become necessary to revoke the kinship of your two clans as warning to others.
“Kindred clans do not war upon Kindred clans, that is all there is to it! Haven’t we Kindred enough enemies—Dirtmen to east, west, north and south, non-Kindred savages, predaceous beasts? So Linsee and Skaht must cease the feud, must give over tearing at each other... either that, or cease to be Kindred.
“I put together this hunt as a means to forge bonds of new friendship and kinship between the younger generation of Skahts and Linsees—those who will be the next generation of warriors. You two men are in charge of the hunt and of your respective clansfolk who are on the hunt. As such, you both must set an example. Therefore, you will henceforth cease badgering and slyly insulting each other and you will prevent any extension of this senseless feud amongst the younger folk by whatever means it takes to do it. Otherwise, I will send you both back to your clan camps and Snowbelly and I will take over your erstwhile functions. Do you both understand me?”
“Oh, prairie, broad prairie, the place of our birth. We are the Horseclansmen, the bravest on earth.”
Gy Linsee’s singing voice was a very adult-sounding baritone, the envy of those boys and young men whose voices still were in process of changing and so sometimes cracked into embarrassingly childish trebles. A bard’s son—though not the eldest—the big, dark-haired boy handled his harp expertly.
He was a quick-study, too, was this Gy Linsee, Milo Morai reflected to himself. Only once had Milo had to play the tune for the boy—a Clan Pahrkuh song, truth to tell, but with the words identifying clan of origin changed by Milo to encompass all of Kindred descent. Moreover, Gy Linsee had managed to come up with several extemporaneously composed verses that had to do with events of this hunt. He would be a young man to watch, thought Milo.
All well stuffed with venison and rabbit, fish, wild tubers, nuts and a few late berries, the threescore youngsters and the dozen or so adult warriors lazed about the cluster of firepits, which now were paved with ashes and glowing coals. But few hands were idle.
There were blades to be honed—knives of various types, dirks, light axes, hatchets, spear- and arrowheads and, for those of sufficient years and experience to carry them, sabers. The skins and hides of slain beasts must be cared for, along with other usable portions of the carcasses—and Horseclans-folk made some use of nearly every scrap of most game animals. Horse gear required constant maintenance. Under flashing blades of knife, hatchet and drawknife, seasoned wood from a tree uprooted and felled and borne this far downstream by some seasonal flood was fast being transformed into tool and weapon handles, axe hafts, shafts for arrows and darts and even spears.
Around one firepit, this one still being fed with chips and twigs and branches of squaw wood for the light, squatted a dozen Skahts. As fast as half of them could split the tough wood and smooth it into shafts of the proper thickness and length, Karee Skaht would affix a nock carved of bone or antler with a dollop of evil-smelling fish glue from the little pot that bubbled malodorously before her. Then she would pass the shaft on to her brother, Ahrthuh Skaht, for the fletching. Following this, using threads of sinew and more fish glue, Rahjuh Vawn of Skaht would complete the arrows, tipping them with prepared points of bone or flint or antler, for these were intended to be common hunting arrows and only war shafts received points of the rare and costly steel or iron.
Gy Linsee had again taken up his harp. He still sang of the plains and prairies, but this was a different song. The tune was soft and haunting, and it took Milo a while to recall where he last had heard it and what it then had been—a love song from far off Mexico.
“Oh, my lovely plains, you are my mother and my father,” went Gy Linsee’s song, rising above the sounds of water chuckling over the rocks of the streambed, the callings of the nightbirds and the soft whickerings of the horses grazing on the grassy bank above the camp.
“Kissed each day by Sacred Sun, endlessly caressed by your lover, Wind; the grasses in which you lie clad are as sweet to smell as summer honey, oh, my plains...”
The boy sang with his head thrown back, his eyes closed, his face mirroring the rapture and love that his fine voice projected. Simultaneously, his powerful mindspeak also cast out a soothing broadbeam sending which reached every man, boy, girl and cat to a greater or lesser degree.
Milo Morai, seated nearby and carving a new stirrup from a chunk of the seasoned wood, remarked, “That boy has the true gift, you know—his fine voice and his abilities with that harp are only parts of it.”
Hwahltuh Linsee smiled and nodded, looking up from honing the blade of his wolf spear. “Our Gy sings and plays songs mostly of his own composition, Uncle Milo, but he never forgets one of them, either. His voice and his harping are even now every bit as good as his sire’s—which is why I am certain that my brother the chief will insist that Gy, rather than his elder brother, Rik, be named as heir to the office of tribal bard. Poor Rik, alas, could not carry a tune in a wooden bucket.”
He sighed and shook his head sadly, adding, “And then the sparks will surely fly, fly for fair. For Bard Djimi is a man of exceeding strong will, and he truly dotes on his son, Rik.”
Tchuk Skaht’s brows rose upward, further crinkling a forehead already lined and scarred. Slowly, incredulously, he spoke.
“But, man, the matter be simple, on the face of it: the one son is far better qualified for office than the other, their ages or the precedent of birth be damned. And yet you seem to feel that your bard would openly defy his chief? Why, a bard is the third most powerful subchief in a clan, subordinate only to the chief himself, and the tanist.”
Hwawhltuh shook his head. “Not so in Clan Linsee, Hunt Chief. We have no tanist, practicing as we do descent through the father rather than the mother. Our next chief will be the eldest son of my brother still living, whole of body and sound of mind... and approved by the council of warriors, at the time of my brother’s demise.”
Tchuk snorted derisively. “What a stupid way to pass on a chieftaincy! And I had thought that only Dirtmen and other such dim-witted, non-Kindred folk practiced primogeniture.”
Milo’s fingers ceased to move, and he gritted his teeth in anticipation of an explosive, probably extremely insulting retort and a probable repetition of the near-bloodletting of earlier this evening. But it did not occur, none of it; apparently, Gy Linsee’s lulling broadbeam had done its purpose well, for although Subchief Hwahltuh frowned and his lips thinned a bit, he continued tightening the wetted sinews about the haft of his wolf spear. When they were to his satisfaction, he set the weapon aside, shrugged and bespoke the hunt chief.
“Some Kindred clans practice descent the one way, some the other way... as you should well know. Nowhere in the Couplets of the Law is any one method for choosing a new chief spelled out.”
“But what,” demanded Tchuk, “if all of your chief’s sons die or be crippled before he himself goes to Wind, eh? What then?”
Hwahltuh again shrugged. “In so unlikely an event, Hunt Chief, I or my eldest son would be chosen chief... unless one of the chief’s sons had left a son old enough to lead the clan in war. Simple, eh?”
“Simple, right enough!” Tchuk’s voice dripped scorn. “Only a simple-minded folk could devise so silly a scheme.”
Milo’s telepathy ferreted out the first stirrings of angry indignation bubbling just below the surface of Hwahltuh Linsee’s consciousness, and he decided to put an end to this dangerous discourse before it provoked what otherwise it inevitably must between the hot-blooded pair.
Starting up work again on the stirrup-to-be, he remarked in a deliberately casual tone, “And yet, Tchuk, although the practice is slowly spreading, still only some score or so of our Kindred clans reckon descent through the maternal line and so pass the chieftaincy to the son of the former chief’s eldest sister. And it is perhaps most fitting that you, Tchuk Skaht, should hold and defend the practice, since it was your very forebears who first brought it among the clans of the Kindred.”
Hwahltuh Linsee snapped up this bit of information avidly, crowing, “Then it was true, what my sire used to say, it was all true! These Skahts truly are not come of the true Kindred, are not of the seed of the Sacred Ancestors at all!”
Tchuk Skaht growled wordlessly and tensed, his right hand pawing behind him in search of the hilt of the saber that now lay across his saddle and bedroll.
The soothing broadbeam of Milo Morai was far and away more powerful than that of the still-singing Gy Linsee; moreover, all of it was directed squarely into the minds of the two would-be antagonists, below conscious level. Still in his calm, casual voice, he spoke aloud, saying, “Be you not so full with pride and that arrogance of your supposed lineage, Hwahltuh, for neither were you Linsees of the Kindred in the beginning. Both the Linsees and the Skahts did not join the tribe until long years after the Sacred Ancestors and their children came down to the prairies. I’ll tell you just how it happened...”
Young Karee Skaht, whose mindspeak abilities chanced to be better than those of many of her fellow clansfolk, dragged the glue pot well back from the fire and stood up, wiping her hands on the legs of her baggy breeches. To Rahjuh’s questioning look, she answered, “Crooktail mindspoke that Uncle Milo is about to recount a tale of long ago, of the early years of the Kindred. I would hear this tale myself.”