When Milo's confederation forces defeated the army of the tyrannical King Zastros, the High Lord offered a peace settlement his defeated foes could scarce believe, welcoming them as full members of the newly formed Confederation of Easter Peoples...
Milo hoped to see the decimated kingdom rapidly reorganized into a thriving realm. but neither he nor any of his allies had bargained for the evil hidden within the very heart of the land's new government...
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).
Loved it!Eve44x -- Amazon Reviews
The old, white-haired, newly dead man lay face down upon the floor tiles, the ornate and bejeweled hilt of a dress-dagger jutting up from his back. Beside the body stood the man who had just killed him, a bared saber in one hand.
“It had to be done,” he said, his voice sad, regretful. “There was never a warrior and leader of warriors I respected more, but his stubborn, senile sadism was tearing the army apart at the seams, and with it our Council and our future, as well.”
Of the score or so of other men in that chamber, some nodded in agreement, most just stood, staring in shock of the suddenness of the fatal deed, and one burst out bitterly, “Murderer! Back-stabbing murderer! It’s you deserve to be dead, and if I had a sword...”
The tall, saturnine man with the saber stepped off to one side, waving his hand toward a rack of swords and a table on which lay an assortment of dirks and daggers, saying, “Come up and choose a sword, then, my lord Vikos, and I’ll meet you here and now, or later, ahorse or afoot.”
The shorter, slighter, balding man began to push through the crowd, grim resolution on his shaven face, but near the forefront of the group, he was grabbed by both biceps and shaken mercilessly by a broader, more massive, greying man, who half-shouted, “Now, dammit, Vikos—Vikos!Blast your arse, listen to me! Portos was right, can’t you see that, man? Yes, I know
Strahteegos Pahvlos once spared you, saved your life, but that Pahvlos wasn’t the one we’ve been having to deal with of late. It was a simple choice: the life of an old, stubborn, selfish man or the lives of who can ever know just how many of us, of our people. And he’s dead now, thank God. How can you killing Portos or Portos killing you alter the situation, hey? May God damn you for a stubborn fool!” He shook his prey again, harder, hard enough to cause the witness to unconsciously wince. “Come to your senses, Vikos.”
A man even more massively built than the shaker touched his thick arm with a huge hand, rumbling in a bass voice, “Stop it, Grahvos. Keep it up and you’ll snap his neck or his spine, and we don’t need two deaths here today, do we?”
With a deep sigh, Grahvos nodded. “You’re right, of course, Bahos. I just couldn’t see a duel to add to everything else.”
The bigger man took the released Vikos and eased him into an empty chair off his wobbly legs, where he just sat, breathing hard and dabbing with tremulous hands at his bleeding nose, while using the tip of his sore, bitten tongue to take inventory of the teeth in his jaws.
A younger version of Grahvos said, “My lords, please resume your places at the table. This Council meeting has not yet been adjourned, and now there is even more business to consider, weigh and decide. Lord Portos, that includes you, please; put your saber back on the rack... and the other sword, too.”
“Sweet Christ!” yelped one of the men, “Grand Strahteegos Thoheeks Pahvlos lies knifed and dead by the door and you insist on business as usual, Mahvros? You must have ice water in your veins, not blood, like the rest of us.”
“Not at all, man,” said another. “He’s simply practical rather than as emotional as some I might name here.”
The first man bristled, but before he could do more than open his mouth, the man next to him, another thick, solid specimen, growled, “Enough of this, all of you. You heard our chairman. Take your places, unless you want Lord Grahvos and Lord Bahos and me going around and shaking each of you, in turn.” To the chairman, he said, “Mahvros, you’re bleeding like a stuck pig. It wasn’t enough to get that dirk out of your shoulder, man, it needs at least bandaging. Here, let me, I own some small experience at such tasks. Want to give me a hand, Tomos?”
As soon as Thoheeks Sitheeros and Sub-strahteegos Thoheeks Tomos Gonsalos had completed their work and resumed their places, the chairman—his left arm now in a sling and his shoulder swathed in linen strips torn from his shirt and that of his two benefactors—spoke, saying, “All right, let’s try to make this short and sweet, get as much as possible done in as short as possible a time, lest pain and blood loss pitch me down on the floor, too.
“We stand in need of another field commander, now. I’d recommend Tomos Gonsalos save for two reasons. Number one, of course, is that he is not one of us, but from Karaleenos; number two is that he is doing a superlative job in his current position and, were we to appoint him field commander, I cannot think of any man who could replace him, who could run his present command anywhere nearly as well.
“Therefore, I suggest that Captain Thoheeks Grahvos take on that command either permanently or at least until we weigh out the remaining officers and find a better commander.”
All eyes turned to the greying nobleman seated near the chairman. He shrugged. “I’ll take over, but only if there is a firm understanding that it is purely temporary, and that I will own the authority to groom candidates for the permanent posting. There are two men I can think of right now who would most likely make us excellent strahteegohee.”He did not think it just then politic to mention that one of the prime men he thought of was the very man who just had slain the previous strahteegos, Captain Thoheeks Portos, Sub-strahteegos of Cavalry.
Mahvros nodded. “I thank you, Acting-Strahteegos Grahvos, on behalf of Council and...”
“Wait a minute, now,” yelped one of the younger of the men ranged about the long table. “Council must vote. When do we vote?”
“You don’t, LordPennendos,” snapped Mahvros peevishly, gritting his teeth against the pain of his pierced shoulder. “When it comes to a final, permanent appointment, then Council votes. Something like this does not require the votes of the full Council, only a half plus one. Stop trying to start up a controversy. If you have nothing better with which to occupy yourself, you can search out claimants to the now-vacant thoheekseeahn of our recently deceased Thoheeks Pahvlos.”
Thoheeks Sitheeros sighed and shook his head. “I suppose we can’t hope that the word won’t spread that we murdered the old bastard, in here... ?”
“Of course that word will be disseminated,” agreed Grahvos. “There’re just too many big, loud, flapping mouths for it to be otherwise... not a few of them presently in this room, amongst us.”
“And what answer can we give to such calumnies?” demanded Thoheeks Neekos, a man built along the lines of Thoheeks Vikos but about the age of Thoheeks Grahvos.
“The truth,” replied the chairman, Mahvros. “The old fool went out of his head completely, threatened us all with a sword from off the rack, put a dirk into my shoulder and was put down for it—treated the only way you can treat mad dogs or murderously mad men.
Most who’ve had any dealings with him of late will believe it, and that means almost all of the army. Those few who choose to not believe will likely be the born troublemaker types, anyway.”
“Who votes his two proxies, now?” rumbled Thoheeks Bahos. “Someone will have to, and a proxy for his own, too, until we find and confirm another claimant to that thoheekseeahn.”
Mahvros wrinkled up his brows. “Yes, there’s that problem. To the best of my knowledge, his only living relative is Thoheeks Ahramos of Kahlkos... and that’s one of the proxies he was voting.”
“Well, then,” mused Thoheeks Grahvos, “where there are no relatives, then I suppose friends will have to suffice. Let Lord Vikos vote the three proxies. Is that amenable, Vikos?”
The slighter man nodded, stiffly, cautiously, but still the movement set his nose to bleeding once more.
Captain Thoheeks Ptimnos frowned and rubbed absently at the patch covering the empty socket that once had held his right eye. “We may well have more than merely a little trouble with his lover, you know. He announced some time back that he was going to make the young man his legal heir.”
“Utterly ridiculous on the face of it!” snorted Captain Thoheeks Portos, derisively. “He may be pretty as a girl and he may or may not be pleasant in bed, but he still is only the third son of a vahrohnos and in no way suitable to rule lands and regard the welfare of peoples. It’s but another evidence of senility... if he even meant it at all, of course. In their cups or in the throes of pleasure, men are apt to make promises they would not otherwise make. When I get back to camp, I’ll seek out young Ilios and have some words with him. As I recall, he intimidates easily. With Pahvlos dead, now, he just may decide that he’s had enough of army life and hie himself home and out of our hair.”
On a lighter note, Thoheeks Sitheeros said, with a wide grin, “Why don’t you take him on yourself, Portos? Couldn’t you use a bedwarmer?”
“Don’t tempt me,” the saturnine officer grinned back. “As I said, he’s pretty as a girl. But unfortunately, he can’t give me increase, and I don’t want my house to die with me. Why don’t you find me a fair, well-dowered little wife like you found for Tomos, eh?”
“You, a kath’ahrohs of pure Ehleen heritage, would marry a mere barbarian?” said Sitheeros, mockingly.
Portos chuckled. “For a large enough dowry, my friend, I’d marry one of your cow elephants.”
Everyone save Vikos laughed; he was afraid to do so lest his nose again begin to drip blood, but he did venture a smile. Mahvros, holding his breath against his pain, still uttered no rebukes for the time being wasted in frivolous chatter, for he would far rather hear the Council jesting and laughing than snarling and hurling insults and edged weapons at each other.
Far and far to the northeast of the city wherein the thoheeksee sat in council, a mounted column crossed the shallow Kuzawahtchee River that served as border between the Kingdom of Karaleenos and the onetime kingdom to the south. Once across the river, they began to make camp, unloading felt yurts from off high-wheeled carts.
They were mostly men of slight, wiry, flat-muscled build, having hair of various shades of blond or red and eyes that were mostly blue or grey or green. They wore baggy trousers tucked into the tops of felt-and-leather boots, embroidered shirts that were full in the body but tight in the sleeves, plus armor that was mostly mixtures of cour boulli, mail, scale and plate, much of it gaudily painted or enameled. Their helmets bore plumes, feathers, horsehair crests or whatever else suited individual fancies, and the saddles of their horses were works of art—heavy tooled and dyed leather, inset and fitted with hooks, rings, buckles, decorations and plates of steel, brass, silver, gold and pewter.
Their weapons, however, were almost uniform in character, at least. Every man bore a cased hornbow—short, recurved and reflex, handmade of orangewood or elm, cowhorn and sinew, with arm-tips of antler or bone and bowstrings of waxed silk—and two dozens of arrows for it. Each also was armed with a saber, a target of leather-covered lindenwood, a spear or lance six to eight feet long, a war-axe, a heavy dirk and one or more other knives and daggers of varying sizes and purposes.
Someone unfamiliar with them might well have thought them a military unit, possibly mercenary cavalry, but they were not, not strictly. They were of the race called Horseclansmen. For hundreds of years, the forebears of these men had, with their herds and their families, roved the prairies and plains far to the west called the Sea of Grasses. Then, less than a hundred years before, above ten thousand of them—men, women and children, with all they possessed—had crossed some thousand or more miles of territory—fighting where they had to fight, moving peaceably elsewhere—and at least one range of mountains to invade and conquer that Ehleen land called Kehnooryos Ehlahs. They all would have been happy with that land alone, but with that land they also had inherited enemies on every border who would not let the new overlords live in peace, and therefore the past seventy years had been a time of almost constant border wars for the Horseclansmen, their new vassals and the mercenaries they had had to hire on, even as had the native ruling dynasty which had preceded them and been paramount in the land before their victorious incursion.
First, it had been war on the northern and northwestern borders. The upshot of their victory over these enemies had been acquisition of them first as allies, then as vassals. The next war had been all along the southern border, with the Kingdom of Karaleenos. After driving the invading Karaleenohee back, twice, only to see them invade again each following year, the army of Kehnooryos Ehlahs and its dependent states had followed the beaten-off invaders back across the border and taken the fight into Karaleenos itself, driving the king out of his own capital and slowly conquering chunk after chunk of his kingdom, trouncing every Karaleenos army they could bring to battle and killing no less than two succeeding kings in two of those battles.
Meanwhile, along the western border of Kehnooryos Ehlahs, warfare against the mountain tribes had never really ceased for all of the four hundred plus years since the Ehleenohee had invaded the land from the Eastern Sea, once called Atlantic, nor did it cease with the change of overlords from Ehleenohee to Horse-clansmen. It was not, had never been, the formal warfare of the northern or southerly borders, but it was no less bloody, vicious and brutal, for all its informality.
Another drive against the battered army of Karaleenos, fighting now under a new-crowned young king, Zenos XII, had come to grips with him and it just south of the Lumbuh River bridge and so badly mauled it that another immediate battle would have been out of the question. However, Demetrios, one of the High Lords of Kehnooryos Ehlahs, had been knocked from off the bridge and drowned in the battle’s prologue; therefore, a truce had been struck and the other High Lord—Milo Morai, a Horseclans chief—had been summoned by gallopers. He had brought with him reinforcements and the High Lady Aldora Pahpahs of Linsee, widow of Demetrios, who had cordially hated her husband for his homosexuality.
Milo had treated his beaten foemen with magnanimity, and it was as well that he had, for he shortly had received word from his capital that the Lord of the Pirate Isles—one Alexandras, himself a kath’-ahrohs or Ehleen purebred of the old stock—had sailed in with word that the new-crowned High King Zastros of the Kingdom of Southern Ehleenohee was even then preparing to lead a host of upwards of a half million warriors across Karaleenos’ southern border, with the avowed purpose of bringing all of the eastern coast under his sway.
When Milo had convinced his sometime enemy King Zenos of the mutual threat and joined the two armies, he had sent messengers far and wide to sound the tocsin, even while striking shaky alliances with hill chiefs and swamp-dwellers to attempt to slow the advance of the huge army of Zastros and interdict its lines of supply insofar as possible.
Help had, indeed, come. Not only from his own lands and those of King Zenos, either, but from far to the north—the Kingdom of Harzburk, the Kingdom of Pitzburk, the Aristocratic Republic of Eeree on the shore of the Great Inland Sea, all had sent noble knights and a horde of mercenaries. Upon learning just why units of the army of Kehnooryos Ehlahs were being withdrawn, warband after warband of mountain tribes had descended from their fastnesses to try selling their services to their ancient enemies.
What had finally occurred at the environs of that bridge over the Lumbuh River had been almost in the nature of an anticlimax. Starved of supplies and near mutiny upon its arrival, the monstrous force had tried but once to cross the heavily-fortified bridge, been driven back in rout, and then had simply hunkered down in low, unhealthy riverside camps to sicken and die of fever, fluxes, wounds, starvation and the nightly attacks of Horseclansmen, swampers and river-borne pirates.
At last, certain of the higher nobility—the thoheeksee or dukes—of Zastros’ kingdom had had enough and sent a herald to the High Lord by night, offering certain things if they were allowed to march their remaining forces back south, out of Karaleenos and into their own lands in peace.
The High Lord had agreed; however, he had done more than that. He had announced to the herald the imminent merger of his lands with the Kingdom of Karaleenos and the Grand Duchy of Kuhmbuhluhn, the resultant state to be called the Confederation of Eastern Peoples, and he offered the sometime Southern Kingdom a equal place in this state. Upon their acceptance of this astounding offer and the delivery of signed and sealed oaths from every noble landholder still alive and with the army that Zastros had led north, the High Lord had also agreed to send to the fledgling Council of Consolidated Thoheekseeahnee of the Southern Ehleenohee a sub-strahteegos commanding a force of troops about which a new army to enforce the will of Council might be formed.
He had sent one of the relatives of King Zenos, Sub-strahteegos Thoheeks Tomos Gonsalos, with a regiment of mercenary pikemen, a squadron of heavy lancers and a squadron-size of Horseclansmen, this group including a cow elephant captured from Zastros’ force during the single attack on the bridge.
The pike regiment and the heavy lancers still were there, but most of the original contingent of Horse-clansmen had followed Chief Pawl Vawn of Vawn, their leader, back to Kehnooryos Ehlahs, feeling like him that five and more years separated from wives and families was enough and more than enough.
Most of the unit now going into camp just to the south of the Kuzawahtchee River was replacement for that earlier-sent force of Horseclansmen. The bulk of this present lot were of Clans Skaht and Baikuh, and were led by Chief Hwahlt Skaht of Skaht, along with subchiefs from both clans. In addition to these larger contingents, however, there were quite a few young, wanderlusting warriors from some dozen other clans who had heard from Chief Pawl of the vast opportunities available in the far-southerly lands for young men of their race, who were greatly respected by the ruling thoheeksee of the onetime Southern Kingdom of Ehleenohee.
Squatting between the chief of Skaht and the senior sub-chief of Baikuh, all three of them watching the establishment of the night’s camp, while chewing at stalks of grass, was a man who save for his Horseclans garb and weaponry could easily have been taken for a pure Ehleen—tall, larger of build than his companions, with black hair a bit grey at the temples, guardsman-style moustache as black as the hair and eyes that could have been black or a very dark brown, his skin a light olive under the tan and weathering.
But any who took him for Ehleen would have been very wrong, for he was no such thing, for all that he spoke that language as fluently and unaccentedly as he did some score of other languages and twice that number of dialects. His name was Milo Morai and he was a chief of the Horseclans, one of the triumvirate that presently ruled the Confederation of Eastern Peoples, and far, far more, besides.
The carefully selected Ehleen horse guards who made up some third of his personal contingent on this trip called him and referred to him as High Lord Milo. So, too, did some of the Horseclansmen... sometimes, but more usually to them, as to uncounted generations of their forebears, he was “Chief Milo,” “Uncle Milo,” or on occasion “God Milo.”
Although he gave appearance of an age somewhere between thirty and forty years, that appearance was vastly deceiving, and, in truth, not even Milo himself knew his exact age, only that thus far it exceeded seven centuries and that he had appeared just as he now did for all of that vast expanse of years of life.
All of the Horseclansfolk—men, women, children, past and present—venerated this man, for he had always been among them, moved among them, lived among them, fought beside them against savage beasts and savage weather and calamity. He it was who had first succored the Sacred Ancestors—those who became the first Horseclansfolk—guided generation after generation of their descendants in establishing hegemony over all of the Sea of Grasses, far to the west, before he finally had led forty-two Horseclans clans on an epic, twenty-year-long trek to the east and the lands they currently held. In the nearly three-quarters of a century since then, he and they had slowly increased their holdings—for the Horseclansfolk, this was not just necessary but vital, for their natural increase and that of their herds called always for more land, and most good land in the east was already held by one people or another, few of them willing to give it up without a fight.
Therefore, for all that their people were no longer free-roaming nomad-herders and had not been for almost three full generations, still were all in this force proven, blooded warriors, just as had been the force led by Chief Pawl Vawn of Vawn.
The three men squatting in silence were all telepaths and were, despite appearances, deep in conversation. Above eighty percent of Horseclansfolk were, to one degree or another, telepathic, telepathy having been a survival trait on the prairies and high plains which had for so very long been the home and breeding grounds of their race. They called the talent “mindspeak” and used it not only amongst themselves but in communicating with their horses and with the prairiecats—these being jaguar-size, long-cuspided, highly intelligent felines that had been with the Horseclans for almost as long as there had existed folk called Horseclans.
“Uncle Milo,” Chief Skaht silently beamed, “I still don’t know why you are bringing along all of those Ehleenee; yes, the ones from up in Kehnooryos Ehlahs are part of your guards, but it just seems silly to drag along more of the damned boy-buggerers from Karaleenos. When you need them to fight, they’ll probably be off in the bushes somewhere futtering each other, and if you can get them into a real battle, the chances are good they’ll run in a pinch, lest they chance ruining their girlish good looks with a warrior’s scar or three.”
“Oh come now, Hwahlt,” was Milo’s silent reply, “you know better than that. You’ve fought in the mountains and during the Zastros business, six years ago, you’ve fought alongside Ehleenohee, even commanded units of them, on occasion, and you surely know that their warriors—heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual—can be every bit as effective as the warriors of any other people, if properly led, armed, supplied and disciplined.
“As to why I brought along young men of Kahnooryos Ehlahs and Karaleenos, I brought them for precisely the same reason you brought along all those footloose young warriors from half a score of clans; man, these are countless acres of prime land in this former kingdom with no lords to hold and rule them, so many were the noblemen killed in the civil wars and then in Zastros’ Folly. Ehleen customs of inheritance are strictly patrilineal, as you know, all land going to the eldest son of the house. All of the young men I brought down here are younger sons who will all be more than happy to give military service and then willingly swear oaths of loyalty to the Consolidated Thoheekseeahnee and our Confederation of Eastern Peoples in order to receive land on which to raise up a family.”
“But what about our Horseclans boys, Uncle Milo?” demanded Sub-chief Djeri Baikuh. “If these damned young Ehleenees get all the land and all?”
There was a broad measure of humor in Milo’s beamed answer. “Oh ho, now we get to the bottom of things. Never you fear, Kindred, you have never seen these lands into which we ride on the morrow. They are truly vast, when compared to those lands you have seen; there will be more than enough for all, believe me.”
“Are these lands as long and as wide as the Sea of Grasses, Uncle Milo?” queried Chief Hwahlt Skaht.
“Not that large, Hwahlt,” Milo replied. “Before the great earthquake and subsidences of so much of the coasts and tidewater lands, the lands that later became the kingdom of Southern Ehleenohee took up some one hundred and seventy or one hundred and eighty thousand square miles, and even today, the Consolidated Thoheekseeahnee stretchesand spreads over an expanse of one hundred and thirty-odd thousand square miles.”
“And just how large is, say, Kehnooryos Ehlahs, Uncle Milo?” the chief asked.
“Between the landward edges of the salt fens and the latest-won portions of the mountains,” was Milo’s reply, “between the Karaleenos border and the Kuhmbuhluhn border, Kehnooryos Ehlahs covers about two-fifths as much land, Hwahlt.”
The chief spit out his grass stem arid hissed softly between his teeth, looking very thoughtful, but carefully shielding his thoughts from the scrutiny of his two companions.
But not shielded from the powerful mental probing abilities of him who abruptly joined them.
The agouti-colored cat slipped noiselessly from out the tiny copse between the three men and came to sit between Chief Hwahlt and Milo, his chin resting on the latter’s knee and his thick tail overlapping his forepaws.
Even as he yawned gapingly, the westering sun glinting on his long, white cuspids, he was beaming, “Why would my cat-brother, the honored and valiant Chief of the Skahts, think of taking all of his clan away from Ehlai, whence first came the Sacred Ancestors, the progenitors of his folk?”
“To begin with, cat-brother,” was Hwahlt’s answer, “there is some doubt that this Ehlai is the original Ehlai, amongst the bards of the clans, for some versions of the Prophecy of the Return and How Strange Our Old Lands say that the direction of The Ehlai of our Sacred Ancestors lies in the home of the setting, not of the rising, of Sun. So there may well be nothing in any way holy about that crowded, overgrazed, mosquito-ridden place up in Kehnooryos Ehlahs at all.
“I mean to take my clan out of it, too, whether we come down here to the Consolidated Thoheekseeahnee or take over the lands and titles that King Zenos has offered me and mine, and Chief Ben of Baikuh means to go, too. Nor are we two the only chiefs considering the offers of Karaleen lands; no, there’s Vawn, Morguhn, Danyuhlz, Rahsz and more.”
Milo was not surprised to hear the chief’s thoughts. He of all men knew just how crowded the high island in the midst of the great salt fen was become as the Horseclansfolk and their herds bred year after year. Nor was the ancient man at all displeased at the news, for the clans squatting on Ehlai were becoming more and more inbred, and this fact could be the beginning of racial disaster, yet few of them living cheek by jowl with close Kindred could be persuaded to take Ehleen women or men in marriage. However, were the clans to settle far away from other clans, in Ehleen-populated lands, then perhaps they might begin to scatter their racial seed farther afield and reduce somewhat their present consanguinity.
In fact, did this chief and the others he had mentioned know the full truth of the matter, King Zenos had requested and been gladly given Milo’s permission to offer his handsome propositions to the chiefs after the defeat of Zastros’ great army, six years back. It had taken longer than he or the young king had expected, but it now would seem that that particular barme had begun to ferment.
To the newly arrived prairiecat, Milo beamed, “Did my cat-brother see or smell aught of danger nearby our campsite?”
The cat had begun to lick at his chest fur with steady strokes of a long, wide, red-pink tongue, nor did he cease his grooming while he beamed his silent reply to Milo. “No two-legs den up anywhere I went in the lands ahead, God Milo. There was one place where once they denned, but no faintest scent of them now lies anywhere within it, only the smells of the beasts which for long have used its shelter. Around the road, yonder toward the rising of Sun is the only place in which there is recent scent of two-legs, and even that is not too recent. This cat... wait, God Milo, Shadowspots beams to this cat.”
After a moment, still licking, the prairiecat resumed his beaming: “God Milo, Shadowspots has found a sandy place down the river. Two-legs without toot coverings have walked there this day, and small, very narrow boats were pulled up out of the river there. The bones and scales of several fish are scattered there, also the bones of a large water viper.”
“Any trace of fire?” asked Milo.
“No, God Milo,” the cat beamed back, “only that which this cat has repeated from the beaming of Shadowspots.”
Milo came up to a stand, ordering, “Hwahlt, before anyone goes too far in settling up hereabouts, tell them we won’t be camping here after all. Shadowspots has found a place where barefoot men pulled canoes or pirogues ashore on a little riverine beach and had themselves a meal of raw fish and a raw moccasin, leaving behind bones from the snake but not the head. What does that sound like to you?”
The chief’s lips became a grim line. “Fen-men! No damned wonder this stretch is unsettled, on either side of the river; those devils must have killed or driven off everyone who tried to live around here... if they were anywhere near to the river, that is. Fen-men will never willingly get far from water and their boats, ever, for any reason.”
Hurriedly, the carts were reloaded and the march resumed in a southwesterly direction, away from the river and the swamps into which it eventually flowed. The fen-folk were the avowed enemies of every man or woman or child not of their scanty numbers and had always been such for as long as anyone could recall. They were a primitive and a singularly savage people, living deep in the fens and swamps in small extended-family groups, joining forces with others of their unsavory ilk but rarely.
Their most-feared arm was a blowgun which expelled darts smeared with deadly poisons; other than these, most carried a large, multipurpose knife and maybe a second, smaller one; they were said to use spears in hunting boars, alligators and certain other large, dangerous beasts, but they never used such in warfare. Fen-men wore no armor, no footwear of any description and few clothes, for that matter. They went about almost naked and smeared from head to foot with some sort of grease that smelled reptilian and was said to repel insects. Adult fen-men shaved or pulled out all of the hair from both scalp and body, but otherwise were of distinctively unclean habits. All folk so unfortunate as to live near them hated and feared the night-stalking killers with their deadly blowpipes; they were killed on sight, like the deadly species of vermin they were considered to be. But wiser folk tried to avoid fen-men and their haunts altogether, which was just what Milo and the others were doing.
“Better to be safe than sorry,” he thought, “but someday I’m just going to have to find a way to eradicate those damned man-shaped things from one end of the fens to the other. I hate to think of countenancing, leading, genocide, but the fen-folk have been at war with all the rest of humanity since at least the time of the great earthquakes and I don’t think they will ever be otherwise then cold-blooded, creeping, sneaking murderers, coming by night or killing from ambush any man or woman or child they see who is not one of them. Even the Ehleen pirates, who have had shaky agreement with them for a couple of centuries now, admit that the fen-men are sly, treacherous and completely devoted to murder as a pleasant pastime. And people like that cannot be dealt with—I know, I’ve tried for years with the subrace of them who inhabit the fens of Kehnooryos Ehlahs—save with a bow at ranges that their devilish poisoned darts won’t reach.”